The Mrs’ sister has been spending a great deal of effort trying to produce the number “2” for me. It will be in the style of Chinese calligraphy with a strong and fast broad brushed effect that I can visualise clearly in my mind but one that I cannot convey to her to paint for me. All week I have rejected her submissions and it suddenly dawned on me that she would have spent quite a few dollars on paper and paint already, not to mention her time and effort. All over the number “2”. “These two 2 too?” She asked me dejectedly last night after I again consigned her effort to the rubbish bin. She has remained silent all day today – the sudden realisation of which delivered a monster wave of guilt on my conscience. Why would I even bother about something so trivial? Why would anyone supposedly of substance and of sane mind worry about how a number would appear in the title of his next book? A number is a number is a number. No matter how it is painted or positioned on the front cover, it will still read the same. No matter the size even. Why are some of us urghhlings so pedantic and ridiculous to such extremities to bother a professional artist about one little number? Heck, it is not as if a beautiful font and stylised number on a book cover will sell more books.
Yet, to say that would be to actually diminish the value of her effort. “Getting something right” does not have to be about the financial reward of an effort and it most certainly does not have to profit us with praises or recognition by others. So, why do we persist with “doing our best” then? With something as insignificant as a number? It could be that it has become unimportant to me at this very moment as I deliberate on the reasons why I persist on finding the right “look” for this “2”. Initially, it didn’t dawn on me that it would end up with so many attempts by her to get the style I want. Maybe I communicated poorly to her. How can anyone deliver something if the request was made in a vague manner? Or maybe she just does it the way she likes? I was confident I knew how it should appear on the front cover and believed I was able to describe the “2” I see in my mind. It has to be in red. A Ferrari red, to be precise. You will have to use a brush, a broad thick brush to be able to deliver a strength and substance of the number. Also, you will need to control the speed of the brush so that one can feel its power and movement. It must not look heavy and cumbersome. That’s pretty clear, right? Before I forget, it should look slightly oriental too.
Why do artists feel the need to get their art exactly right? Even down to a few brush strokes? Or musicians who keep honing their technique for hours just to get some passages exactly how they think the composer wanted it? A few bars may warrant more practice time than a whole movement? Why do we need to get something this insignificant to be exactly how we want it to be? Is such a person ultra fussy? Simply ridiculous? A trifle idiotic? Mad? The artist does not judge my personality except to say it is my project and therefore I have every right to demand the way I want it to be. Others say we should see the forests rather than the trees. Success goes to those who can see the big-picture, to those who can strategise and take their endeavours to the next level. Those who allow themselves to be bogged down by the minutiae of daily grind will deservedly get stuck in the mud. They can’t pull themselves out of the quagmire they put themselves in. “Don’t be that little frog in that dried up well.” But, if we can’t do the small things right, how can we do the big things right, right? The Malays have a saying, “Sikit sikit lama lama jadi bukit” (little by little becomes a mountain over time). The Chinese also have a saying about the old man trying to move a mountain that’s in his way. He told those who heckled him that although he may not succeed in the task, he has descendants that will finish the job. 愚公移山。 In Australia, we all know that a small thing like a cigarette butt can cause a massive bushfire, which explains the need to not ignore seemingly unimportant little things lest they come back to hurt us in a big way. Similarly, we do not leave a small hole alone if that hole is on the floor of a boat. American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) famously said, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.” Maybe that is what my concern has been. The need to get the small things right is the discipline I have imposed on myself for far too long now to simply abandon even when I know the irrelevance of getting them “exactly right”. Years of reconciling accounting ledgers to the last cent I fear was a bad teacher to accounting students on the merit of focusing on what the figures tell us about the big-picture stories of the business. Just write off those small balances! Or, maybe I have acknowledged this late in life that I cannot do great things in my life and so I might as well do the small things well. On the other hand, it could be that as life seems to pass faster and faster as the years go by, it is the wisdom I have found about the beauty and importance of small things in life that we often miss as we focus only on the big issues and big-ticket items that we dream of procuring. It is not wrong to agree that at times as I look back in time, it was the small things that mattered most in the end. The little things that gave us most contentment and joy were actually the big things, such as the loud chuckles from Ma when served a hearty meal by The Mrs or the occasional sweet smiles that flashed on Ma’s face as she reminisced about her early life with Pa. I still grip on to the precious early memories of my very few trips with Pa to Sungei Petani and Selama – part of his responsibilities to inspect and supervise the workers on their first rubber plantations. It isn’t the little fish in the creek or the carefree black puppy that brings me back to that happy place once upon a time, but the special and rare bonding of sorts with Pa. Yes, I do harbour the view that it is the small things we do that can save our marriage, e.g. ever since The Mrs’ face turned ashen from that incident with my “uncontrollable fart” when she was pregnant with our first son, I know never to release flatulence under the doona in case the “product” is of the super pungent type. That is the one thing about our farts, we just never can tell if they will stink or not. There is no warning, no signs to tell us which variety will be released at any given time. So, I have learned to do the little things to save my marriage, such as showing interest at the little things she shares with me, even if it’s about some stranger in Taiwan having a roadside tussle with her husband’s “Xiao Er” (mistress) or some mumbo-jumbo theory about the Year of the Rat. Be genuinely interested, give her a hug that can rival the enthusiasm that Murray, No.1 Son’s puppy showers on her as she comes down the stairs for breakfast. Be constantly on the lookout to be considerate, such as emptying the green wastes into the compost bin without being told to do so and collecting cut branches and twigs with rose thorns from the ground so they won’t exact their vengeance on her hands in the days and seasons ahead. I suppose the smallest thing we do that in time will be the biggest thing we do for our marriage is showing gratitude. Love is assumed for without love, nothing survives. Saying thanks for the breakfasts that she shares with me even though pancakes and freshly baked bread are made of flour – carbohydrates that we ought to avoid especially if we lead relatively sedentary lives. The one big thing I learned from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is that it is the time we spent on our rose that makes it important to us. It is not that the rose is important to us that makes us invest the time to look after it. So, the more time and effort spent on getting the “2” I want will make it even more important to me!