My Boss, My Loss

I love Fridays. So much so I tell myself every day is a Friday. It avoids the blues of a Monday or the dread of mid-week with the weekend still seemingly an eternity away. I love Friday nights, especially. A Friday night is a movie night. There is no longer the need to go to a drive-in or drive to a Video Ezy store for a VHS tape – there just isn’t one anymore, the stores I mean. The VHS tapes I still have – some precious ones in my collection such as the digitally mastered THX Special Edition Star Wars Trilogy and Christopher Nupen’s Jacqueline Du Pre and the Elgar Cello Concerto. There is no need to do an illegal download either, The Pirate Bay and Napster have long disappeared. A long time ago we used to pester family members to buy us VCD’s of pirated movies from pasar malam or night markets in Penang or KL before they come and visit us in Adelaide. All that is history too which may require me to explain what a VCD was – Video CD, usually pirated and sold in Southeast Asia for just a dollar a copy. At that price, no one complained about the poor quality. Yet, I still have the voluminous Winter Sonata collection stashed away. Don’t ask me why, maybe it has something to do with Choi Ji-woo. Giving her up is hard to do. Nowadays we have free online streaming such as iView and SBS On-Demand. Netflix is also free, but only because First Son pays for it. Friday nights offer me the luxury to sit on my sofa chair like how a lord would, outstretched legs overhanging from the recliner chair, the gin and tonic a genuine tonic to lift me up from the pits another hectic and stressful week had banished me to.

My VHS collection, precious only because of the memories

Tonight’s movie is about a small group of immortal mercenaries in The Old Guard. They are led by the very feminine Charlize Theron whose puny arms, slender body and skinny legs are not those you’d expect of a lethal indefatigable fighter who has not lost a fight since time immemorial. Incredibly beautiful eyes, interesting storyline but just a very unconvincing immortal fighter. Where’s Chen Pei-Pei when we need her? Theron is unconvincing, she is no Wonder Woman. There were some fine scenes that resembled martial arts, but her puny arms just don’t look like they would hurt a fly. Her inability to convince me she can be a lethal weapon suddenly made me feel I am as unconvincing too. Not as a weapon but as the boss of my business and the boss of my family. I am no lord. I am no boss of the house either. Theron opened my eyes and forced me to look at my own deception. Look at the way I sit on my own throne. It is no throne. It’s actually a broken lopsided sofa chair with badly scuffed leather that is screaming for a badly needed coat of leather polish. Look at me. I am not even sitting fully spread on my chair. Why? Look at Murray, First Son’s pup. He has ownership of more than half the seat and therefore has consigned me to sit on the side of my backside with a twisted torso. Who is the boss? I am at a loss to tell you the truth.

Murray dislikes me sitting on his brown pillow.

Earlier today, I took him to the backyard, immediately after I finished work. His favourite game is football (we still call it soccer here) – I seldom get the ball past him for he is such an agile goalie. No, no. It is not that I am a novice at kicking a tennis ball. Murray is simply so much sharper and his reflexes faster than the best goalies we see on TV. Please move aside, Manuel Neuer, David De Gea and Buffon. You guys are old and slow by comparison. I hadn’t checked my mobile phone for over an hour. So, whilst Murray was taking a breather, I thought I could sit under the gazebo and read some of the WhatsApp messages that trickle in incessantly. Not a chance. He barked at me as I was checking my phone. Who is the boss, I asked? He insisted I put away the phone. No phones allowed on the football field, especially during penalty kicks. I suppose it is not such an unreasonable rule. As the boss, I quickly agreed to the request, lest it became a demand.

Once upon a time, I was the sole breadwinner for my family of seven. The Mrs very quickly produced us three sons. Her parents lived with us then, all seven of us under the one roof. I remember the innumerable late nights upstairs at my desk toiling away till the wee hours whilst the rest of the family enjoyed their slumber. Back then, I believed I was the boss of the family. And, as the boss, you will do whatever it takes to deliver a safe and secure environment for your family. The boss provides what the family needs. There were no “wants” to satisfy. It turned out to be a good thing. No soft drinks, no junk food and no useless toys that only damage the environment. The boss was like a parrot whenever their “wants” were submitted to him. “Ba, can you get us this?” Baby Son wondered as he pointed to the photo of a packet of Smith’s Chips on special in the weekly Coles catalogue. “GET?” I hollered. “You mean buy, right?” “Buying requires money, Baby Son.” Usually they took turns to deprive themselves, though. Once, Baby Son was looking at the temptations in the ice-cream section. It wasn’t I who screamed but Middle Son did. “PUT IT DOWN! We can’t afford ice-cream!” Or, when Middle Son was about to choose some bananas. Baby Son yelled to him from the opposite end of the F&V section. “HERE! THESE ONES ARE ON SPECIAL!” So, who was the boss? I thought I was. Now, I realise a father’s job in the family was precisely that. A job. To provide and to protect. Did it make me the boss? I am at a loss to answer that.

A fortnight ago, my mum thoroughly enjoyed her first durian for the year. I bought two Musang King durian from Thuan Phuat in Chinatown. They were $27.50/kg. Ma uncharacteristically exclaimed they were reasonably priced. The sweetness of her smiles were enough for me to venture out to buy some more today. When I saw the price tag, the Penang-lang in me yelped “Oh, you have put the price up to $28.50! That was quick!” Penang-lang means a person who hails from Penang. Here, it also means a person who is price-sensitive (to put it kindly) or someone who is extremely miserly (to put it insensitively). Perhaps, it is safer to describe a Penang-lang as someone who is thrifty, one who is forever conscious of prices and therefore is never wasteful. The lady boss of Thuan Phuat smiled sweetly and said she will charge me only $27/kg. Wow. That is how a true boss behaves – generous, equable and congenial. Whereas I am the type who feigns displeasure at a shop-keeper’s price increase. Do I act like a boss? I am at a loss to answer that. Ma again was visibly happy as she helped herself to a second “hood” of durian. The Penang-lang in me counted she had three in total today. She looked so pleased, so I ate less and packed a container for her to take home. She kept saying that’s it, two durian sessions a year will do. I reckon I want to surprise her with a few more.

Out of three “hoods”, this was the best!

Murray also had his before me. I was responsible for opening and serving all three durians. I suppose that makes it clear who the boss is. I know it cannot be me. Let’s ask Murray.

Murray can have the durian but not the seed. It contains cyanide!

Elgar Can’t Be Vulgar

It is written down. Irrefutable. Intended. Definitive and revealing. A permanent record. Every thing of importance to us is in writing. When we are born, we are given a birth certificate. When we graduate, we have a certificate to prove it. Soon after, we see a mountain of documents thrown our way, a contract of employment, contracts for purchases of the car, the house, and whatever that get us into debt – yes, bank loans are also in writing. Some of the most important pieces of documents in writing for me would include my passport and the title deed to my house. Without them, I won’t be able to leave the country or live in the building I call home. My marriage certificate was once important to me, it legalises my relationship with The Mrs and provides her with legal rights to half of everything I own. It is of little importance to me now, somehow. We do not need written words on a piece of paper to legitimise our lives together, not after thirty eight years of living under the same roof and under the banner of man and wife. Important documents spelling out what we own and owe. Definite and clear, it obviates the need for interpretation – there is no risk of misunderstandings. Yet, that is not always true.

Edward Elgar’s cello concerto in E Minor was written just after the First World War. Contemplative and autumnal, this elegiac work is my favourite cello music. I bought Jacqueline du Pre’s CD boxset for my sons when they were about six years old. That was the first time I heard Elgar’s cello concerto. The best time to listen to it is during the quiet of the night. Alone. It is hair raising stuff. Spine tingling. A sure way to activate the tear glands that produce the hormones prolactin that makes us cry. For me it is the one piece of music that is packed with indescribable depths of sorrow. You cannot help but feel the dark pain and heart-tearing suffering of humanity. du Pre was our idol. Vivacious and full of life, she was a giant in the cello world. We loved the documentary about her by Christopher Nupen. That was the first time I saw her play. On the VHS tape. It was in black and white. I did not know that the gown she was wearing during her Elgar concerto with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra was a striking red colour. For me it was her playing that made me fall in love with Elgar’s music. It was her obvious passion for the cello that attracted me to the instrument – its ability to speak to me even if it’s just an open string being played. Her lively, honest and carefree playing captivated a worldwide audience. Carefree, but never careless. Not all music is in written form. But it would be correct to say all orchestral music is written down. The composer wills it in his score. He informs the musicians how his music should be played. How it should sound. For instance, Vivaldi informed us clearly the sounds of the four seasons. His “winter” is chilly, bleak and the cold is piercing, with the strings sounding especially metallic. Gustav Holst described the planets in his seven movement orchestral work. We get to hear how our solar system sounded in Holst’s mind. They are all written down, every note, every rest, musical accidentals, articulations, dynamics, ties and slurs. The conductor reads them, understands what the composer wanted and demands it from the orchestra. Obvious markings on the score dictate what the composer’s ideas were. A pp here and an ff there. A fermata or an sfz. A fermata is a pause. But, how fleeting should we rest? The composer didn’t say. No other markings except for a dot. The same uncertainty with a dot above a note. How brief should the pause be? It was not a subito forzando that caught my attention in Elgar’s cello concerto. It was not a “ Suddenly with force” but what did Elgar ask for in his music where he had markings of ff with accent and ten. all at once? Is the effect as strong as an sfz? The one cellist who observed that unreservedly was du Pre. But, to many cellists, it seems incongruous to play that in the context of the music. In the depths of despair and melancholy, it sounds jarring and out of place to apply the note with sudden force. The accent seems wrongly placed, despite the fact that Elgar wrote it. Elgar couldn’t have been vulgar. Maybe he did not mean it. A mistake? In the midst of a stupor? But it is written down. Undeniable. Deliberate. Intended. Yet, many cellists do not observe it. They ignore that marking. They do not play it the way Elgar wanted. It sounds incongruous to the flow of the music. Over time, the players got accustomed to how it was played, without the accent and tenueto, and the listeners learned to accept that was how the music should sound. If you listen to du Pre’s recording of Elgar with the accent and tenueto, the note will sound rough, yet it was exactly how Elgar wanted. Now, I have to relearn how it should actually sound, as intended by Elgar.

On December 19, Donald Trump was impeached by the House. He blew his top at the whistle blower who told the world of Trump’s illegal use of his power to solicit the support of a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. The one very important incident that triggered the case for impeachment was the phone call with the Ukraine president during which Trump asked Zelensky for a favour to announce the investigation into Trump’s major domestic political rival, Joe Biden. Major military aid had been withheld pending Zelensky’s announcement into the unsubstantiated and long debunked Biden corruption in the Ukraine. A visit to the White House was also contingent upon Zelensky doing the favour asked for by Trump. The White House issued a transcript of that “perfect” and “beautiful” phone call whilst disparaging against the whistle blower. The five page transcript is a written edited report of the July 25 telephone conversation, with many segments missing although Trump vowed to release a “fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of the controversial call. Yet, The White House and the House of Representatives are at odds with what the written words meant to their case. To the House, it was a clear case of quid pro quo, their commander in chief using his immense power to gain a personal advantage whilst risking national security. To the White House, the favour sought was a proper and diligent effort to ensure the proper use of foreign aid by the recipient country. Same set of words but with totally opposite conclusions. History will record that Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, despite his top officials’ refusal to give their testimonies of what they know about the extent of Trump’s involvement in the bribery. Elgar can’t be vulgar but the same cannot be said about Trump. Now, that is written down.

Practise again. Elgar cannot be vulgar.