A Brave New Adventure

on Thursday, November 26, 2009

Unrecognisable Hugh Laurie

Half a lifetime ago, I spent 5 years in the British Isles; three of those years as a poor University student in London and apart from a short stopover, I have not been back to visit for 20 years. Very shortly, I will be making that trip and I will be meeting up with old friends for the very first time since.

I am excited and a little apprehensive at what I will find. I already know that at least one of my old haunts have fallen under the wheels of progress and the relentless march of time. Will old memories come flooding back or will I find I no longer have a connection with this great city.

The London and indeed the Britain I knew must be quite different from what they are today. Mine was a Britain under the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher; a Britain where the fish and chippie shop was still common place; a country that still faced the problem of terrorist attacks from the IRA (I was nearby when bombs went off outside Harrod's Department Store); a country whose Queen was almost uniformly respected and adored; a country that fought a risky but (most people would agree) justified war for the Falklands; and finally, a country where Hugh Laurie played the straight-laced and proper mommy's boy sidekick to Rowan Atkinson in the Black Adder TV series.

Today, the time of Thatcher is like a distant memory. The fish and chip shop has been largely replaced by curry and rice shops. Thankfully, there is hope of a lasting peace in Ireland but London has been attacked by Islamic terrorists instead. The once unsullied Queen has suffered much bad publicity over her relationship with Princess Diana. Today, a commission is investigating the reasons why Tony Blair's government committed the country to an unpopular and possibly unjustified war in Iraq. And Hugh Laurie is almost unrecognisable as the caustic and cankerous Doctor House in the American TV series.

I have not seen the Millennium Bridge (or indeed any of the Millennium projects), the Princess Diana memorial, the London Eye, the Gerkhin etc. I'm hoping the old open air market in Fulham is still there. I'm hoping the kebab place near Golder's Green tube station still sells the best kebabs ever. I'm hoping to visit my old University residence and find it largely unchanged. I'm hoping Somerset Cider is as delicious as I remember it. I'm hoping that U.K. food standards have improved!

Most of all, I am hoping my old friendships will pick up where we left off some twenty years ago. Wish me luck.

Space Opera

on Sunday, November 22, 2009

No one will ever mistakenly accuse me of being high-browed and cultured. I certainly don't track with the black tie penguin suits of high society. Sadly, this extends beyond my lack of interest in participating in the extravagant social rituals of the aristocracy and my lack of money to pursue them. I genuinely do not seem to know how to enjoy or appreciate some of the things that are adored by this set. For example, I do not see the fuss made about foie gras. Please, it's liver! Apart from the debate about whether it is ethical to force feed the ducks to get the fatty liver which is made into foie gras (in humans, a fatty liver is medically a diseased liver), I never liked eating my liver and onions and hiding what it is behind a foreign (non-English) name still does not hide its intense liver taste.

Another thing that brands me solidly as a Philistine squirrel is my lack of appreciation of opera. Wikipedia says that "Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score. The word opera means "work" in Italian (it is the plural of Latin opus meaning "work" or "labour") suggesting that it combines the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, acting and dancing in a staged spectacle." Hmmm. Well, that just sounds like a musical just like "West Side Story" or "Phantom of the Opera" but in a different language (just like the foie gras case).

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the modern musical. I just don't understand why people pay top dollar, get dressed to the nines and go an see a musical which tells a story in a foreign language that I can only understand from reading the souvenir program which I have to purchase separately at an extortionist rate.

It probably did not help that my early introduction to Opera was something from Wagner's Ring Cycle based on German and Norse mythology. It is of course sung in German, and as I remember it, sung by big women wearing fake blond wigs with pig-tails, armoured breasts (like Madonna's) and horned helmets. Even one of its more famous songs, "The Ride of the Valkyries", made no sense to me in German. It only became a song that I could really appreciate when it was used in a media that I could appreciate; and that was as the song "Kill the Wabbit" sung by Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. Now who said Saturday morning cartoons cannot be educational!

However, if Elmer and Bugs helped me to begin to understand opera, the one performance that really opened my eyes to the true wonders and possibility of Opera was the stunning performance of the Albanian songstress, Inva Mula Tchako, who was the voice behind the character Diva Plavalaguna in the movie "The Fifth Element". In it she sings an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (the mad scene), and “The Diva dance” song. I may still not understand the language but the way it is presented certainly helped me appreciate it. Allow me to share this song with you. For those serious Philistines like me, try to hang on till at least the 3.28 minute mark when a transformation occurs.

Double Blast from the Past

on Thursday, November 19, 2009

It is the habit of squirrels to bury nuts in the ground and when they think the nuts have sufficiently "aged", to dig them up again. On this flimsy pretext, I occasionally "dig up" an old post that I feel deserves to see the light of day again. On this particular occasion, I dug up a couple of posts from almost exactly 3 years ago which is soon after I first started blogging. I present the following unburied nuts from November and December 2006.

Cujo - or why I don't like cats

Photo credit: bellasproofs2

Squirrels don’t like cats which I think is obvious. It has to do with the way cats are always trying to catch, kill or maim squirrels. However, even my human alter ego is not fond of cats. The reason for this is ……..Cujo.

In the following story, none of the names have been changed to make sure that the guilty are fully embarrassed. There was a time when I shared a small apartment with this dude, Frank, and his cat, Poney. Poney is your typical calico tabby who had been quite used to being the queen of the house with all her needs taken care off and pampered. This living arrangement worked well until that fateful day when Frank called me into the kitchen to introduce me to this cute kitten he had rescued from the local pound.

He called him some sugary sweet name like Prince or Peaches. I cannot remember what it was caused he was soon dubbed Cujo which suited him so . But wait, I hear you protest! “Cujo is not a cat, but a mad dog.’ Believe me when I say that I have not met a cat or a dog before or since which was more psychotic and deserving of the name, Cujo.

Cujo was a very young kitten, barely a quarter the size of Poney. He had the red, orange and white colors of a tiger and had both a tiger’s ferocity and appetite. He also introduced fleas into the house and despite dousing him in powder, I would be tormented by itchy bites for weeks. Frank was oblivious to this, entranced as he was by Cujo’s playfulness and energy. Poney and I both knew there was something evil about this kitten.

Poney was the first victim. Cujo plotted to get rid of her. Despite Poney’s size, Cujo took to bullying her at meal times. At first, we would feed them both from separate bowls in the kitchen. That did not work as Cujo would chase Poney away and eat both portions. We then tried distracting Cujo by feeding him upstairs and then feeding Poney downstairs in the kitchen. That also failed because Cujo would actually run up and down the stairs to deprive Poney of either. Then, I locked him in my room while Poney fed in peace and I was rewarded by a well sculptured, steaming mass of cat poop on my bed. Poney loss some weight before we found the solution of locking Poney in a kitchen cupboard with her food where Cujo could not get to her. Apart from meals, Cujo continued to persecute Poney, chasing her from all her favourite spots in the house.

Cujo then decided to move up the food chain and targeted me. His campaign started by regular poop bombardments on my bed. After the fifth time, I declared my room a high security area, a cat free zone and made sure my door was closed 24/7. Frank apologized for his kitten's antics but remained bewitched.

One evening, I was in the kitchen and had a frying pan on the stove and I was frying up a batch of my famously delicious Malaysian Fried Rice. I had fried all the spices, onions and vegetables and had just added the rice. I was stirring the mixture to ensure it cooked without burning or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cujo jumps up on to the dishwasher which is some distance away but at the same level as the stove and from that vantage point shows interest in my culinary efforts. I wave my spatula at him and tried to shoo him but he ignored me. Then, in a flash, he jumped across and into my frying pan!!! To my surprise, Cujo landed with all four evil paws on my fried rice, stood there and began to eat the meal. That was the last straw. I threw away my delicious smelling fried rice which was now marked by Cujo’s paw prints, laced with some of his red hair and I suspected, also fortified with grit from the kitty litter. Defeated, I left Cujo to rule the kitchen while I went out into the cold autumn night to buy my dinner from the Chinese takeaway.

Cujo, probably decided that at this point he was just one step from being the top cat in the house and started to turn his attention on Frank. He started with sudden playful bites on Frank’s ankles. Frank adapted for awhile during which he would walk in a funny high-stepping manner to make his ankles a harder target. Frank liked to lounge around the house in his terry-cloth robe with nothing underneath. This made it a painful experience when Cujo invented the game of jump onto the robe and start climbing with all claws employed. Even then, Frank was stoic and refused to condemn the cute kitty. Cujo then escalated his campaign by leaving poop on Frank’s bed, in his shoes and on the morning newspaper.

One winter evening about 2 months after Cujo entered our lives, I came in from the cold into the warmth of the kitchen. Frank was standing by the dishwasher in his robe, drinking tea and the newspaper. Poney was curled up on a chair. Everything was peaceful. Without looking up from his paper, Frank said, “I went to the pound today and told them I had found this abandoned kitten and I gave them a donation and asked if they could find it a good home.”

Life was sweet after that but I often wonder whether Cujo lives on, tormenting some other poor household. Sends shivers down my spine.

Attention Cat-Lovers

In the interest of Blogging peace, Lone Grey Squirrel, hopes to assure all readers, visitors and cats that he does not really hate cats (just "demon cats" called Cujo).

To demonstrate, his sincerity, Lone Grey Squirrel can be seen here apologising to a representative of cat-kind (but only behind the safety of plate glass window!!!!!).

Photo credit: oddAnimals.com


on Monday, November 16, 2009

At Home with the Lord and Re-united at Last.

My father passed away in 2007 at the age of 93. Just a few days ago, on the 3rd of November, my mother, at the age of 87, followed him into heaven. It was almost exactly 2 years and a month later. Suddenly, even though I am a middle aged man, I feel like I have been orphaned.

My parents were a very loving couple and so very co-dependent that when my dad passed away, there were many from within family and friends who thought that my mother would not last very long. Well, she carried on for another 2 years. It was not an easy two years though. Even though she had no shortage of family, friends and visitors, it was clear that she missed him very much and had a loneliness and an emptiness that none of us was able to fill.

When they were both younger, she would always ask my dad to promise to allow her to die first for the very fact that she felt she could not bear being alone in the world without him. Very good naturedly, my father would assure her that he would definitely not go first so she was assured that he would be there to take care of her. However, as it turned out, that was one promise he was not able to keep.

And so, I think these last two years were perhaps for my mom a very sad and lonely time. There were, of course, happy days during this period. She particularly enjoyed the visits of her grandchildren. She still had a good appetite and was still able to enjoy her favorites like barbequed pork, fried banana fritters and durian fruit. On her penultimate day on earth, she asked me to get her some satay (seasoned meat skewers grilled over a charcoal fire) for dinner. To my everlasting regret, I was not able to do so because of heavy rain. She even placed an order with my brother for an Indian specialty called mee rebus for lunch the next day; and not any mee rebus but one from a particular shop that she used to take us to as kids.

Yet despite her relatively good appetite, she was extremely malnourished. I suppose, the scientific explanation would be that she was not able to absorb enough of the nutrients. However, our hearts tell us that she was sad and just wanted to move on.

She took to her bed and began to cut her ties to the world about three months ago. Perhaps the second anniversary of my father's passing weighed more heavily on her than we had imagined. A doctor examined her that very morning and declared that her lungs were clear and her heart beat was incredibly strong for someone her age. By noon, she had breathed her last, for no other reason perhaps than that she was ready, nay, desirous to go.

I am glad that she is beyond this period of loneliness and suffering. I believe that she is now home in heaven with God and reunited with my father; altogether in a much happier place and at peace.

For me though, the world seems a more dangerous and wild place as if a great source of love and light had been extinguished. Even though like all children, I sought to establish my independence from my parents, deep down I was always glad and relieved to know that their love and support was a constant in this tumultuous life. And now, with them both gone, I cannot help feeling like a 47 year old orphan.

To family and friends, I thank you for all your love shown. I thank you for your faithful visits to my mother, for your prayers, support, kind words and actions. God bless you all.

The Oily Man

on Monday, November 02, 2009

"Oozing charm from every pore,
He oiled his way around the floor.
Every trick that he could play,
He used to strip her mask away."
lyrics from "You Did It" (My Fair Lady)

Those lyrics tell of a slick operator with perhaps too much grease in his hair, applying his smooth moves to charm and disarm the ladies. I have always liked those few lines of prose. I find it amusing. But this "oily man" is quite benign compared to the one that this post is primarily about.

Still in keeping with the Halloween spirit which is sticking around like peanut candy between the teeth, I am going to share with you the story of one of the Malay legends. I refer to the "orang Minyak" or Oily Man.

The Oily Man is basically a man who creeps about at night, completely naked and covered in black oil. The oil covering makes him hard to see in the dark and also makes him very slippery which helps him evade capture and also helps him squeeze pass tight spaces such as between the bars on a window.

There were in fact a rash of burglaries and rapes in Malaysia in the 1960s which were committed by men who had disrobed and covered themselves with oil and grease. Such cases still surface from time to time even till today. The perpetrators in these cases are entirely human.

However, the legendary Oily Man is said to be supernatural in nature. He is said to be able to be virtually invisible in the dark. Some say that he is also able to slip through spaces too small for humans to do so. It is said that the Oily Man had made a pact with the Devil. In return for giving him supernatural powers and wordly desires, the Oily Man must rape 21 virgins in 7 days.

A typical story would occur in a house or a dormitory where there may be more than one woman asleep in the room. The room may be locked and though the windows are open, they are secured with wooden bars or metal grilles. No ordinary intruder can enter but then the Oily Man is far from ordinary. He is able to slip through those bars while the girls sleep.

One of the women who is a virgin may suddenly awake to see a dark form over her with penetrating eyes which are visible even in the dark. She finds she can neither struggle or cry out. She is subsequently raped. Finally, she screams and her room mates rush to her assistance. It may be that they never see the orang minyak because it is said that he is able to make himself invisible to others apart from his victim. Alternatively, the orang minyak may be seen but he eludes capture on account of his slippery oiled skin and is able to escape via squeezing out through the window bars.

Till today, we sometimes hear of cases or incidents in female student or worker dormitories which are classified by authorities as examples of mass hysteria or are they really attacks by Orang Minyak.

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