Sunday, 27 February 2011

Black Swan, Angry Birds and Weekly Roundup

(Promotional movie poster reproduced without permission but in accordance with the principles of fair use.)

When we internalise our insecurities, do they remain merely as unspoken fears, or do they grow, evolve and develop lives of their own? Can our anxieties take on physical forms and become something menacing, sinister and destructive?

Enter the competitive and neuroses-inducing world of professional ballet.

Natalie Portman is exquisite in her role as Nina Sayers, the overprotected, highly-strung, fragile ballet dancer who “just wants to be perfect”. As the innocent, fearful, conflicted White Swan, Portman is consummate; but it is her portrayal of the sensual, fiendish Black Swan that makes one realise her depth as an actress.

Nina Sayers’ descent into insanity is revealed to us not in the form of subtle clues, but in flashing red lights and sirens that scream “Nutjob!”, “Mental Case!” and “Fruitcake!” From her bulimia, displays of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, kleptomania and nervous habits of scratching herself and biting her nails, to the fact that she is unable to grow up and move out of her oppressively pink bedroom, we understand, with a good dose of dramatic irony, that Nina is a far more troubled young person than the people around her realise. The “sweet girl”, under pressure to be compliant and technically precise on the one hand and to let her emotions out on the other, is just a tragedy waiting to happen.

What makes Black Swan such an effective and compelling psychological thriller is also the characterisation of the other supporting players in this drama. Barbara Hershey is both exasperating, creepy and, at the same time, pitiable, as the hovering single mother obsessed with her daughter’s career and personal life. Mila Kunis is charming and believable as the reckless, confident, forthcoming and seductive Lily, embodying everything that Nina is not. Winona Ryder is unrecognisable as the bitter, rejected erstwhile Swan Queen. But it is Vincent Cassel’s assumption of the role of the passionate, masterly and hot-blooded artistic director, Thomas Leroy, that delighted me the most. With Cassel, you simply cannot dismiss the liberties he takes with his female protégées as sexual harassment or old-fashioned sleaze. Instead, you think, “He’s French! He’s an artist! He’s brilliant!”

Ultimately, this is what makes Black Swan such a winner – all the characters come together to deliver a Kafkaesque fantasy that titillates, provokes, horrifies and discomposes.

Weekly Roundup In Prose and Pictures:

And so, being on schedule at work, I took Friday afternoon off to take the parents out to a movie and dinner. We enjoyed Black Swan so much that we discussed it all through tea.

“Don’t see why her mother had to overreact and threaten to dump the whole cake in the trash”, averred Covert Mum, referring to a scene in the movie. “She could have just cut it up and put it in Tupperware and given some to the neighbours, the cleaning lady, the gardener and the postman.”

“That’s because she’s not Asian and pragmatic like you, Mum”, I pointed out. “Moral of the story is that if you do too much ballet, you turn into an Angry Bird”.

This is a sly dig at the fact that I had to endure 2 months of ballet lessons when I was 8. From what I could recall of my childhood, I had declined when my parents asked me if I wanted to take up piano, because lessons were expensive, we couldn’t afford a piano for me to practice on, and it just sounded like too much hard work. However, for some strange reason, I was talked into trying out ballet because someone had outgrown her outfit and was willing to give it to me, the lessons were inexpensive and I had a few other friends in ballet class. I was so hopeless at it that it was a relief to everyone when I decided to quit, a decision that was wholeheartedly supported by my parents. For the record, I didn’t manage to do a split until I took up taekwondo at 13, so ballet couldn’t have made any lasting impact on my flexibility or agility.

“No, the moral of the story is that one should never strive for perfection,” advised Covert Mum. “You do understand that, don’t you?” Covert Dad queried. I looked up from my French toast in surprise. “Don’t you think you push yourself too hard all the time?” Covert Dad wanted to know. It was like being interrogated by the LTTE, where only one answer is acceptable to your inquisitors. Why would my parents think that their trash-talking, tone-deaf, clumsy, free-spirited ragamuffin of a daughter strives to be perfect? “Disagree,” I asserted, reaching for more butter and syrup. “I would be happy to be reasonably competent and even-tempered. Not perfect.” How little my parents understand me, if they think that my happy bustle of activities and achievements is an attempt at perfection, if they think that my packed schedule is a substitute for some other void in my life!

Moseyed around the shops and department stores a bit before I saw the parents off. It was a rainy Friday evening, and the weekend has just begun. Life is good, it really is.

Mobile Uploads:

My canine sibling, Amber, now lives with me at the bachelor pad because she and Chocky no longer get along. She is thrilled that she gets to go on walks with me twice a day. I am pleased to receive the news from Anthony that Bravo is now a loved family member. Now all I have to do is to collect Bravo’s vaccination and neutering records from the vet so that Anthony can apply for a dog licence for Bravo.

Saturday was a busy day at the SPCA shelter, as our Jumble Sale was to take place in the shelter premises the following morning. I was kept busy all afternoon with animal care work, briefing the new volunteers and cleaning the shelter. Rose and I managed to bathe and tickwash all the dogs in Maternity Kennels 1 & 2 and the Pound. Here I am, on my way to transfer two rescued puppies into a kennel with 2 other recent arrivals.

A closer look at the two puppies. The panda one is the more robust of the two. I pray that they find good homes soon. If the vets are of the opinion that they should be fostered for another week or two, I would be happy to take them in to improve their chances of survival and rehoming. Amber will just have to learn to share me with other animals.

Adoption rates have been stable, and Saturday was an extraordinarily good day for adoption, as 15 cats and dogs found homes. Some adopters have sensibly decided to adopt two of a set of siblings so that the animals can keep each other company. A young couple adopted this cheeky feline pair, and I helped them ensure that the kittens remained inside the box until they got to their car, as they had forgotten to bring their pet carrier with them.

The animals go home two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah. A senior couple turned a personal tragedy into an opportunity to do a good deed by adopting this otherwise-forgotten pair of dogs from Kennels A. Their own dog went missing shortly before the Chinese New Year holidays, and they had come to the SPCA to put up Missing Dog flyers. They decided to adopt two adult dogs from the shelter, and so this pair of siblings was given a chance to live a better life with the kind couple. “And if your missing dog returns?” I asked them. “If she returns, we would of course welcome her home with open arms,” they declared. The couple was kind enough to grant me permission to say goodbye to the two doggies and to take a photo of them through the car window. Goodbye and good luck, sweeties!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

That Old Gang of Mine

It's not merely wedding bells that are breaking up that old gang of mine. Matrimony, motherhood, work commitments and health issues has made it harder and harder for my friends and I to continue playing for the Malaysian Bar Ladies Football Team. Several have left the country for greener pastures. Others have left legal practice. With the departure of several senior players, other (mostly younger and fitter) players have come to take their place. I had to stop playing football with the team in 2007 when lymph node infection left me almost at Death's door in Nov 2006. It took me a few years before I felt I had the strength and confidence to participate in high-impact activities again.

The past year has been good to me. I was fortunate enough to succeed in climbing to the peaks of Mount Ophir and Tabur East (Klang Gates Quartz Ridge) in 2010. Thanks to the encouragement and support of That Special Someone, I decided to play football for the team again.

The team as it was in 2005, at the lobby of Rendezvous Hotel, Singapore. Grow old along with me, my friends. The best is yet to be.

Exhausted but in high spirits after our match against the ladies of the Singapore Law Society in Langkawi, 2006.

I was touched and grateful to receive a warm welcome from my friends on Saturday when I attended football practice with them at Sportsbarn Petaling Jaya. Of our original team, only 4 attended practice last weekend. Still, I see it as an opportunity to meet and befriend my new team members and to try to fall back into my old position as a last-line defender.

Post-game gossip session at Sportsbarn. As this photo attests, time did seem to rush by in a blur!

The years have been kind to my veteran teammates and I, and our stamina has not suffered greatly. We have all, without exception, lost weight over the past 3 years, though mine did not come from exercise but from falling in love. Nothing can burn calories as efficiently as having my heart do somersaults and having stars come out of my eyes.

We had a scrumptious brunch at Kanna Curry House after our game and made arrangements to meet up again for practice the following weekend.

I went to the SPCA Shelter after football for my customary 4-5 hours of bathing and tickwashing dogs, treating minor ailments and injuries, counselling potential adopters, training new volunteers and cleaning the shelter.

In light of the recent Poodle Abuse Incident, Glyn will be conducting an Animal Welfare Legislation and CSI Workshop, and I am to assist him with the presentation on Malaysian animal protection laws and procedures. I'd appreciate any positive publicity for this workshop, so if you know of anyone who might be interested in learning how an animal cruelty investigation is conducted, please help us spread the word.

The weather has been quite unpredictable, and due to an unexpected downpour on Saturday evening, I was not able to attend a Frogging Workshop with my herpetology companions in the Malaysian Nature Society or go to the plant nursery in Sungai Buloh to pick up a rambutan sapling for one of my latest "special projects". I did, however, manage to bathe 3 - 4 shelter cats with ringworm and other skin ailments in the afternoon, which aroused the curiosity of the shelter staff. Many people have inquired as to how I manage to bathe stray cats, shelter cats and my own Rowdies without being scratched or bitten, and so I'd like to share my cat-bathing tips here:


(1) Get an escape-proof bathroom ready. Secure the windows and bathroom cabinets, remove all breakable items and toilet paper and get an old towel and the medicated shampoo ready.

(2) Stroke your intended feline victim to reassure him or her. Pick cat up and put gently into an empty cat carrier. Bring to bathroom.

(3) Cats are unlike dogs in that they don't respond well to negative reinforcement. If you corner a strange dog and manage to loop a leash or choke chain around his neck, he will probably go into submissive mode and trot sullenly to the wash stand/bathroom with you. If you were to corner and leash a cat, on the other hand, the cat will pull harder in the opposite direction out of fear and may strangle himself, eliminate waste or go into shock in the process.

Shut the bathroom / shower stall door and let cat out of the carrier. Cat will probably look nervous and may start yowling. Do NOT grab or leash the cat. Let the cat explore his or her surroundings but beware that cat may get hurt if he/she tries to escape, so be watchful and firm.

(4) Use the shower to spray the cat with warm water. The flow of water should be gentle and not forceful. Cat will yowl and walk around the bathroom, trying to find an escape route. Do NOT grab the cat or hold him/her still. Let the cat think that he/she is the boss and is in control of the situation.

(5) Once cat is wet and miserable, lather and rub cat with medicated shampoo. Once cat is completely covered with shampoo suds, open the carrier door. Cat will usually enter the carrier without much coaxing, as it appears to be the darkest, smallest and safest place in the whole terrifying bathroom. Keep cat in the carrier for 10-15 minutes to allow the medicated shampoo to take effect.

If you have another cat which requires treatment and another empty pet carrier, now is a good time to get the second cat into the bathroom for his/her bath. By the time you are done lathering Cat #2, Cat #1 will be ready for rinsing.

(6) Once the 10-15 minute soaking period is up, let cat out of the carrier and rinse with warm water. Cat will probably be quite subdued by now and quite willing to let you wash the offensive-smelling shampoo off. Again, do NOT grab the cat! Let him/her find a comfortable spot to sit and sulk as you follow him/her with the showerhead. Talk to the cat and use firm strokes to reassure and comfort the cat. The key here is always to let the cat find a place where he/she feels safe and not so threatened. This often means higher surfaces like the toilet seat or the bathroom sink. There's nothing wrong with this. The toilet will be wet anyway, and you can always rinse it clean later.

(7) Dry cat off with a towel and let cat out of bathroom to go sulk somewhere else.

Until my next weekend adventure beckons, I bid you Adieu and Good Day.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Love Is The Answer

“Light of the world, shine on me
Love is the answer”

~ England Dan and John Ford Coley, “Love Is The Answer”

In my youth, I have always been a rare one for participating in competitions. As I approached my 30s, I ceased submitting entries for slogan-writing and other such contests for a very sensible reason – I didn’t know what to do with the prizes anymore. Almost all the prizes offered consist of merchandise I have not much use for, vacations that I never have the time to take, and tickets to events on weekends that are already packed with volunteer commitments. Looking for last-minute takers for the prizes became more than a minor annoyance and after several vouchers and hotel stays expired unnoticed and unmourned, I decided to take a break from taking part in contests.

My last two weekends, however, were unusual in that they were not packed with some frenetic activity with an immutable date and deadline. The parental home had been cleaned so vigorously that it could pass any white-glove test, the SPCA shelter had been scrubbed and disinfected and the neediest dogs have been bathed and tickwashed, my own Rowdies have been bathed and dewormed, our rescued dog Bravo has found a loving home with Anthony and family (thank you, dear Tony!), my work is ahead of schedule and all the necessary documents and correspondence I needed to produce for various organisations have been drafted.

And so when I saw a newspaper slogan-writing contest giving away tickets to John Ford Coley’s concert at the Genting Arena of Stars, I jumped at the opportunity to see one of my favourite singers in the flesh. The tickets I won were originally intended for my buddy Nicole and me, but due to some pressing family commitments, Nicole had to regretfully decline. With a heavy heart, I invited other friends to be my partner and guest. There was no shortage of England Dan & John Ford Coley fans and I finally settled for my friend and fellow volunteer Shyam. I have not been to Genting Highlands, Pahang , since 1991 and was really quite grateful when Shyam offered to drive. To save on costs, we decided to pack a picnic and camping gear and camp out in the car. Shyam packed spicy noodles and a guava, while I brought papaya, mandarin oranges, soda, sweets and munchies. And though I missed Nicole all weekend, Shyam provided good company and the weekend turned out to be a memorable one.

We parked at the open air car park in front of the unmistakable First World Hotel, which looks as though it had engaged Jackson Pollock as a colour and design consultant.

This is the lobby of the First World Hotel, with decorative lighting made of reused PET bottles. Too bad they didn't put in as much effort into reducing energy use.

A video I took on my Blackberry of John Ford Coley performing “Soldier In The Rain”. He also performed other ED & JFC staples such as “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and “Sad To Belong”, as well as non-ED & JFC numbers such as Bread’s “If”, Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”, and Phil Medley and Bert Berns’ “Twist and Shout”.

The audience was a largely middle-aged crowd but none were as loud and appreciative as Shyam and me.

Shyam and I posing in front of the stage after the concert, with the kind permission of the staff of Resorts World Genting.

Mr. Coley signing autographs for his fans. The queue snaked all the way up the stairs. They had run out of CDs by the time I got there.

I was too macho to bring a jacket and was shivering with cold when I saw this palace-like facade to one of the commercial establishments. We ended up drinking hot coffee and watching the Man Utd vs. Man City match at a canteen for cabbies and bus drivers.

Shyam riding the Rio Float with me at the First World Hotel indoor theme park after the concert because I wanted to take some aerial-view photos.

An aerial view of part of the indoor theme park, which is still very much in the Chinese New Year mood.

I’ve always loved Ferris Wheels. They are sturdy, old-fashioned and predictable, just like me, and don’t spin off their axles and perform infarction-inducing corkscrews and 360-degree loops.

Pole-dancing, lion style! I thought this particular lion looks a bit Christmassy.

The black lions came forward to receive "lai see" from members of the audience.
Here, Lion! Good Lion! Here, take the cash!
I told Shyam that it is good luck if the lion accepts money from you and gives you a token of appreciation (usually just orange segments) in return, and that you're supposed to stroke the lion's mane and beard for luck.

The "Fu" fortune charms that Shyam and I received from the lions.

I wonder what fortunes and adventures await me in the Year of the Rabbit! Perhaps more concerts, thanks to the generosity of sponsors like Resorts World Genting, and perhaps fewer weekends spent oscillating from one hectic activity to another. And maybe, just maybe, I’d get to meet Mr. Coley again.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

This Old Town

“Heard a siren from the docks,
Saw a train set the night on fire,
I smelled a spring, on the smoky wind,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.”

~ “Dirty Old Town”, The Pogues

Nothing of especial importance took place during my Lunar New Year celebrations this year. All I remember of it was the customary increase in the amount of housework I had to do, the shuttling back and forth between Rawang and Petaling Jaya (due to the fact that Bravo, my rescued dog, is still living with us in our bachelor pad in PJ), the files I managed to complete on my computer (which makes me wonder why I bother leaving the office at all), the hours spent volunteering at the SPCA (especially bathing and tick-washing the much forgotten Sick Bay dogs) and the unpredictable and volatile weather.

Last year’s Lunar New Year bike rides led me to document the neighbourhood that I grew up in (See this post). This year, I thought of taking a few photographs (merely of cellphone quality, mind) of a few of the remaining landmarks that are of any sentimental value to me in the old town.

My parents, who were originally from Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, came to Rawang to teach in the 1970s following their graduation from the teachers’ training institute. Rawang Town has its roots in the tin mining and rubber industries, and remains a largely working-class small town with little to offer visitors. Mining pools dot the landscape, and the “town centre” used to consist of only 2 roads, Jalan Maxwell and Jalan Welman. The cement factory, then known as APMC (Associated Pan Malayan Cement), dominated much of our small town life, especially since we could not ignore the rock-blasting exercise which was carried out every Monday and Thursday at their limestone quarry.

Most of the buildings and landmarks that were of any significance to me have already been demolished in the name of development. There was a provision store we called the “Bengali Roti Shop”, due to the fact that they baked their own bread, near the old marketplace, that the younger population of Rawang Town used to hang out in because it had comic books and magazines galore. Tired of grubby fingers pawing through the pages of latest issues, the shop owner would leave one copy unwrapped and charge us 10 sen to read all the unwrapped copies of magazines and comic books that we wanted. Where that charming little shop once stood, a row of faceless shoplots now stand, offering knockoff tees and cell phone accessories. Rawang “New Town” was built on the site of our town library, football field, basketball court and a handful of picturesque post-colonial bungalows which served as government offices.

Jalan Welman is made up of over 40 shoplots on each side, and now consists mostly of Indian restaurants and provision stores. I remember that there were 3-6 shops in a row all selling school uniforms, schoolbags and school supplies. In our teens, we would try to get temp jobs at these shops during the school holidays, especially during the back-to-school rush. We were paid by the hour and we blew the money on – what else? – comic books and beer.

Jalan Maxwell is just as shabby, but it did have the only supermarket in town then (Bintang Supermarket, opened in 1987), the only KFC outlet (I was never much of a meat eater so I went there for the soda floats) and the town Post Office (where my Primary 5 class teacher, Cikgu Ramlah, lived, as she is the postmaster’s wife). I still find it quaint that my teacher lived a floor above the Post Office.

Rockman Inn, in Jalan Maxwell, was the only boarding house in town back then. It occupied the 2 levels above the town’s only 7-Eleven convenience store and was located next to the very grotty bus station. I used to spend a lot of time at the 7-Eleven outlet in my teens because one of my male friends worked shifts there and would let me read the magazines for free. Sometimes he offered me chewing gum or Slurpee and claimed that he had palmed it, but looking back on it, I think he paid for it out of his own salary and told me he nicked it just to impress me. My schoolmates and I would ride on the smelly buses to KL to attend intensive tuition classes before major exams, and my friends and I learned a lot about the birds and the bees from the lewd graffiti at the back of the bus seats.

The Sun Cinema, located in a back alley running parallel to Jalan Welman, screens mostly only Tamil and Hindi movies these days to cater to the majority Indian population. It was closed down at one point and converted into a pool parlour. I remember this back alley for the stray dogs that chased our bikes, the scrap metal collector who lived among his piles of soda cans, the schizophrenic male who would rail and rant at the world in the middle of the road and the shops and clinic that I found temporary employment with during my school breaks. The said shops and clinic faced Jalan Welman, but this was the back alley that I rode my bike up to on my way to work.

And here’s the cinema that I actually patronised! It has since been converted into a tacky shop selling kitchenware. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was called ‘Rex Cinema’ and screened mostly English and Cantonese movies. My parents weren’t too happy with us frequenting the cinema as it was dirty and had an unsavoury reputation as the site of at least one rape incident and another murder incident, but I don’t think parental disapproval has ever stopped any youngster from doing anything they wanted! Not even finding a flasher behind the cinema stopped me from spending my allowance watching Batman movies at this grotty place. (The flasher wasn’t as dangerous to us as we were to him – my 2 female taekwondo teammates and I chased the flasher down on our bikes, yelling and whooping like Apache braves. The flasher stumbled and fell several times and almost got involuntarily castrated when his pants got caught on something. No-one ever saw the flasher again). My parents were right – the cinema was filthy to a fault. The flip-up seats were full of wood lice and the floor was full of sunflower seed shells that were never swept up. Sometimes, in the middle of a movie, rats would come out to eat the crumbs on the floor and we would be able to see the rats silhouetted against the cinema screen when they stood between the screen and the projector. I found the rodent shadow play hilarious and occasionally more entertaining than the actual movie. The cinema didn’t have a proper snack bar, but there were mobile (and probably unlicensed) concession stands that offered insalubrious treats such as garishly-coloured preserved fruits, cordial drinks that were probably nothing more than food dye and lots of sugared water, and crisps with enough monosodium glutamate to make all your hair fall out.

The Sri Veerakathy Vinayagar Temple has undergone a facelift in the last decade. My parents still dutifully visit this temple annually on Vinayagar Chathurti, or Lord Ganesha’s Birthday, which usually falls around August-Sept each year. I wouldn’t be so contemptuous of the current temple committee if they’d only try not to make a circus out of Vinayagar Chathurti by setting off firecrackers and having neon light displays on a day of meditation and prayer.

All roads lead back home – well, not all roads, but the old market road which passes by the front of two houses of worship leads to Old Waterfall Road, which in turn, leads to my neighbourhood. The Chinese Quan Yin temple marks the end of the town and the beginning of the residential areas.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time on the school field and unpaved rural roads practicing running, for I represented my sports ‘house’ in cross-country running and the 400m, 800m and 1200m track events. In retrospect, my love of long-distance running symbolised my desire to run away and flee from the small town ties and mindsets that tried to hold me down. A small town is no place for a young person with ambitions and ideals. At the age of 17, I saw my opportunity to run, and I did, never looking back. 16 years later, I don’t have to run any longer. I can’t say it feels perceptibly good to return, or that I feel any pride in this provincial town. But I can look back with a smile and a shrug, and remember the good times and good friends I had. There’s a life to be lived, and places to explore, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.