A Book, A Movie, A Song

on Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thank you all for your wonderfully diverse but helpful comments and advice to the previous post. Like in that post, the squirrel remains in a pensive and philosophical mood and the wanderings of my mind led me to this discovery.

A number of times, I have come across bloggers who do a meme on the books that they have read. They would share about the latest books they have read, favorite author etc. and very often, which have been the books that have influenced their lives most.

I have always not participated cause, when it comes to books that have influenced my life, my brain usually draws a blank. One because I am not a prolific reader, two because I am not a serious reader (i.e. I do not like to read heavy intellectual tomes) and three, my reading list is a little embarrassing.

So, as I said, I was surprised to make a discovery of what may be the book that has been most influential in my life (apart from the bible) during my recent mental wanderings. The book is "Ring of Bright Water" by Gavin Maxwell.

Well, it is actually a series of books including "The Rocks Remain" and "Raven Seek Thy Brother". For those of you who are unfamiliar about Gavin Maxwell and his books, I have posted on it before. Follow this link. It is essentially an autobiography of a journalist, author and naturalist who purchases a small piece of land in a remote part of Scotland; his own personal bit of heaven which he named Camusfeàrna. The books also detail his relationship with a whole menagerie of otters; his first love, Mijbil; his long time companion, Edal; Teko who brought fresh hope; and the next generation including Mossy and Monday.

How has this book (or series of books) been influential in my life? Well, I first read "Ring of Bright Water" when I was about 13 or 14 years of age and I think it was the first book that taught me to love animals and especially animals in the wild. My current career in nature conservation some 3 decades later stems from this love that was first planted as a seed then. That makes it a major influence indeed.

The books were also a very brutally honest record of the difficulties, both personal and financial, that Maxwell faced in trying to make his little piece of heaven work. There were also the disasters and tragedies that struck. At that young age, this was my first time reading about a very human icon. He may be author and naturalist extraordinaire but he was far from faultless and far from knowing all the right answers. He made me appreciate that heroes are humans too and the real heroes are the ones that get up after being knocked down and start re-building again.

Maxwell could probably have continued his successful career or even entered into the diplomatic service but he gave it all up for a simpler life amongst his otters and outdoor pursuits in his tiny remote corner of Scotland. My dreams have been affected by his. Success is not as the world measures but by your own sense of happiness in doing what you love. I still seek a little piece of heaven on earth even now.

As I prepared for this post, I came across the old theme song for the movie based on the book. I had actually forgotten how wonderfully poignant and inspiring these words were to my younger self. They are wonderful. The song was sung by Val Doonican and here are the lyrics, followed by the song itself.

Where sun and wind play on a ring of bright water
That's where my heartland will be
The deer on the hill in the first snow of winter
the gull in the sky winging free

I wandered away from the dark crowded city,
Leaving my old life behind,
And came to a place where a ring of bright water,
Dazzled the care from my mind.
So I live with the wonder of the sky and the sea
And I'll always remember who revealed them to me

But now you are gone with your whirlpools of laughter
Racing me down to the sea
But I always smile when a ring of bright water
Echoes your laughter to me.

(key change)

But now you are gone with your whirlpools of laughter
Racing me down to the sea
But I always smile when a ring of bright water
Echoes your laughter to me.

Echoes your laughter to me

Friend or Foe

on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sometimes, when the nuts are all gathered and safely stored, when the snow lies thick upon the ground and there is not much to do but to stay snug in the nest and out of the bitter winds, a squirrel's thoughts may turn philosophical.

On this occasion, I have been reflecting on the meaning of friendship. Is a friend someone who gives you support and love unconditionally? Or is a friend someone who stand up and risks even the friendship to tell you when you are doing something wrong?

Recently, I had a friend who wanted to take a very big life-changing step and who needed my help and direct support to achieve it. I did just that because I wanted to show my unconditional support but since then I wondered if I had done the right thing. Deep down, I have my doubts about whether my friend had made the decision for change for the right reasons and there is a fear that things will not work out as my friend had hoped.

So have I done the right thing by offering unconditional support? If so, why do I feel that I have contributed to a train wreck that is yet to happen?

The alternative would probably to tell my friend that he is about to make an ass of himself and as I friend I will not participate in his "ass-ification". I might lose him as a friend though and would be unlikely to have swayed his course. But would I at least achieve a "moral" victory? Hmmm.

When I look back at my own life experiences, I remember a time when a friend told me I would be certifiably insane if I pursued my desire to be a psychologist. Her point was that there were few career opportunities for psychologists in Malaysia and I would probably end up being a starving psychologist. I remember thanking her for her candid input but deep down I wondered why she would try to ruin my dreams and aspirations with mere facts and reality.

In hindsight, I am happy with the career that I did pursue even though it has little to do with psychology. Yet even though till today we remain close friends, that incident still shines like a beacon across the darkness of time to remind me that I did not get the support I wanted. The conclusion from my own experience would suggest that even I value support rather than the truth from a friend.

Yet, there is a part of me that would like to believe in the higher ideal that friendship must be about truth and what is good for the other person above all else ......even the friendship itself. In other words, better to be a good friend or even an ex-friend than a mere "yes"-man friend.

What do you think? What type of friend would you prefer? Please advice the squirrel.


on Thursday, February 18, 2010

A dreadful ailment is affecting Malaysian Grey Squirrels. The characteristic symptoms are blood-shot and droopy eyes and a tendency to drift into a comatose state in the middle of the day. After much research, medical experts conclude that the epidemic will be over by the beginning of March. But will the squirrels be able to survive till then?

And what causes the blood-shot eyes and comatose state during the daytime? Television. Or rather the television coverage of the Olympic Winter Games from Vancouver which unfortunately screens at the twilight zone hours of 1 am - 4 am in Kuala Lumpur. After several days of keeping such vampire friendly hours, my eyes are sore to the light of the sun, my skin has a ghastly parlor and my brain goes into REM sleep at work .

Just the other day, I struggled to stay awake with a gallon or two of dark hot coffee while trying to watch this particularly interesting winter sport with an exciting match between Team Canada and Norway. I desperately needed to sleep but the game had interesting changes in fortune that kept me glued to the TV set. I invested an hour and a half of my slumber time to watch the match and would you believe it...........the local station cut the coverage just 10 minutes before the close of the match. How frustrating!

Now what was this interesting sport that caught my attention? Well, here is where this post really starts. Are you familiar with that delightful rhyme that goes; "Stick and stones will break my bones......."? Well, this sport has sticks and has stones.

The stones are made of granite, weigh about 20 kg and have handles. The sticks are actually broomsticks. You also need a long stretch of ice with frozen droplets of water on the surface which are called pebbles. There is also a painted house with no walls and hog lines.

Briefly, there are four in a team and they take turns to throw the rocks at the house which is down the far end of the ice. One guy throws the rock, one guy tells him where to throw the rock and the other two use the brooms to sweep the ice so that nothing gets in the way of the rocks. The guy who throws the rock must also make sure he throws the rock before he crosses the hog line or else I think the hogs get angry.

Oh yes, this has also been called chess on ice cause it is obviously very intellectual. The Scots claim to have invented this game in the 16th century but the Lone Grey Squirrel doubts this. I think guys in kilts would not have a lot of fun on ice. Also we all know that Scots toss cabers and not rocks.

I am more inclined to believe that during the 17th century, a bunch of Americans from Salem set off to throw stones at some local witches but a peace-loving witch enchanted them and they ended up playing a game with their stones and the witches' brooms.

There! I have done my best to educate you on the special sport of curling but if you are still not satisfied, you might want to get the truth from wikipedia. Or you could watch this video.

Nor Sleet Nor Snow

on Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Last week, my wife found herself in New York after a two week working road-trip that saw her travel from Asia to Europe and finally to America. We were looking forward to her returning on a Wednesday evening flight from JFK Airport which would bring her back home just in time for the traditional family re-union dinner on the eve of the Chinese New Year.

On Wednesday morning in Kuala Lumpur (9 pm at night in New York), my wife called and gave me the disappointing news that she might not be able to come back as scheduled. Earlier that week, New York had already been hit by a blizzard which resulted in all the airports being closed for three days. Now, barely two days later, another blizzard was rolling in. My wife's flight was scheduled for 9pm that day but the problem was that the snow storm was expected to roar in at noon. The travel agents and the airports were predicting that no flights would make it out that night.

Even worse, even if my wife could get on a flight the day after or the following days, she would be stranded in Singapore because all the flights from Singapore to Malaysia were fully booked for people traveling home for the Chinese New Year. There seemed noway that she would be spending the Chinese New Year holidays with me. Very depressing news indeed.

Anyway, later that day, it happened to be my weekly bible study group day and I shared the situation with them and challenged them to pray with me for something that if not impossible, seemed to be most improbable; that God would somehow get my wife home for the holidays. That was at 8 am New York time and a phone call from my wife confirmed that the snow was already falling and New York was under a blanket of white. The storm was still expected to peak in another 4 hours and her flight still a distant 13 hours away. The airports still were prediting cancellations.

Well, having committed the matter to God, I went to sleep and woke up the next day to find an exciting SMS on my handphone from my wife. Her flight was in the air and she was on her way back. Hallelujah!

It later turns out that Newark and LaGuardia airports were closed by the storm. JFK Airport remained open but one by one the flights were cancelled. Somehow, her Singapore Airlines flight was boarded, spent three hours de-icing on the runway but finally took off. It was to be the ONLY flight to leave that night.

I have said it before and I'll say it again. God is the best travel agent there is. Happy Chinese New Year! May great things roar in for you this Year of the Tiger!

Do You Know Where Your Coffee Has Been?

on Monday, February 08, 2010

Do you know where your food comes from? In these times of modern transportation, we can enjoy food that comes from around the world. For example, a visit to your supermarket may avail you of bananas from South America, grapes from Australia, cheese from France, olives from Spain, oranges from South Africa and rice from India.

But let's put food aside. I want to talk to you about your coffee because, let's face it, without that cup of java in the morning many of us will not be conscious enough to eat (which is my exciting new theory of how the dinosaurs died out. First the weather grew cold and the dinosaurs gew sleepy but there just was not enough coffee to go around and so they fell asleep and starved to death.)

Do you know where your coffee comes from? If you aren't sure, go ahead and go to the kitchen and check. I'll wait.

Dum diddle do diddle dum diddle dee. Yabba dabba doo skiddooo. Ying tong iddle i po.

Oh, are you back? So, was your coffee from Columbia, Ethiopia, Zambia, Philippines or perhaps even good old Malaysia? Suckers! You are settling for second best.

After lengthy investigations and travel around the world sticking his nose where it did not belong, the Lone Grey Squirrel has found the source of the world's best and costliest coffee. This coffee is so exotic and exclusive that only about 450 kg (1000 pounds) is processed a year and it sells at up to USD 600 per pound.

Where is this coffee from? Well, it comes primarily from Indonesia, Philippines and to some extent from Vietnam. More importantly the beans that make up the coffee is excreted out of the bum of civet cats. I refer to the Kopi Luwak.

Why is this coffee the king of coffees? Well, to start with, the Asian Palm Civet is highly skilled at picking the best and ripest coffee berries which it then ingests. Then something about the enzymes in the gut of the civet cat reacts with the beans of the coffee which effectively reduces the coffee's bitterness and makes for a smoother coffee. So just to re-cap, the skill-fully picked coffee berries go in one end, the enzymes work on the beans and finally they pop out at the other end. Fortunately, these skilled workers work for next to nothing and have never unionised or else the price of this coffee could be even higher.

The Lone Grey Squirrel is then told that the poop is then collected, the semi-digested beans are taken out, washed and then lightly roasted and wallah ............the world's costliest coffee. I am told that the human workers who have to collect and wash the poop do demand a higher salary and are unionised.

Weasel Coffeee (Photo by LGS)

Now, I can practically hear some of you protesting that coffee isn't ...... well, isn't your cup of tea, so to speak. Don't worry, for the discerning tea drinker, we have found for you, "Monkey picked tea". In this case, there is no eating of the leaves and passing through the digestive system and any of that nonsense. No, this tea is special cause the monkeys are skilled at picking the youngest and tenderest leaves. Why do they do that? Well, let's just say that in the middle of the jungle, there just isn't any toilet paper. What is a civilised monkey supposed to use?

Monkey Tea (Photo by LGS)

Skilled Third World Coffee Picker and Processor

Picture has been licensed under a GFDL

LGS admits to telling the truth here and there and making up everything else. Ooops! Time for my coffee break.

Music for a Funk

on Friday, February 05, 2010

I am feeling a little down. My wife is away, traveling and I miss her. I got the flu. Work is piling up and so are the bills. And, there is conflict at work. I don't do conflict well. I guess you can say that I am in a funk. I had no idea what to post tonight but I went over The Walking Man's blog and something happened as I read his poem, TIRED OF BEING WET AND COLD?

The poem somehow reminded me of the lyrics of a song that was a particular favorite of mine when I went through my depression period. This 1969 song was sung by the singularly talented Peggy Lee and was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The song was inspired by the story "Disillusionment" by Thomas Mann, written in 1896. You know that you are depressed when even the greatest joys, greatest excitements and the greatest loss leaves you with nothing but a numb, empty feeling.

So in line with my current gloomy mood and my philosophy of "why should I suffer alone?", I would like to share this dark song which is ideal for stewing in a funk. For those of you who mistakenly thought that I was going to play funky music, you can leave now. It's music for a funk and not funky music.

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