Best. Lamp. Ever.

I can’t believe I forgot to include this in my Singapore post earlier this week…

At the Pan Pacific Serviced Suites where I stayed in Singapore, they have a recreation floor with a Wii, a pool table, a reading library, internet café, etc. So the second day I was there, I decided to go check it out. And when the elevator doors opened, this is the sight that greeted me:

Welcome to the 11th floor!

Yes, that is a life-size statue of a horse…with a lamp on its head. I must have stood there staring and laughing for a good five seconds or so…the elevator doors actually started closing before I managed to move. I don’t know where in my house I could possibly put such a lamp but I WANT one. Badly.

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“And You Wonder Why British Food Is So Bad” Dept

Opening line from this story:

A recent survey taken of Britons revealed that nearly two thirds of them think that “arrabiata” is a sexually transmitted disease of some kind, which probably makes going out for an Italian restaurant for dinner a rather unique experience.

No wonder the sauce’s name is Italian for “angry”.

(And yes, I know there are two b’s in arrabbiata, but cut the author of the piece some slack — he’s probably British, and we should just be glad he knows we’re talking Italian food here.)

In Which I Get Into a Spot of Trouble

[Phone rings, then is picked up]

HELEN IN HOUSTON [in the ridiculously cute half-awake voice she talks in when she has just woken up – imagine a cross between the sound of a happy little girl and a purring kitten, if you can manage that]: Hello?

ME IN SINGAPORE [cheerfully]: Good morning, sweetheart.

SLEEPY HELEN [obviously smiling on the other end]: Good morning.

ME: Did you sleep well?

SLEEPY HELEN: Mmm-hmmm. Have you had a good day?

ME: Well, yes… [with some trepidation] But I have to confess something.

SLEEPY HELEN [clearly still smiling indulgently]: Okay. What’s that?

ME: Well, I heard a Chinese singer on the plane that I really liked; so I got someone here to tell me where I could buy CD’s, and I went to that shop to get her album. Only, they let me listen to a bunch of other Chinese singers too and…well, I spent two hundred dollars.

NOT AT ALL SLEEPY HELEN [very distinctly and clearly]: You spent HOW MUCH????

And that was the last I heard of the sleepy purring kitten voice in THAT conversation.

Now, the backstory, with musical recommendations:

Last year, on my long flight to Singapore, I took the opportunity to listen to the Mandopop (Mandarin pop music) available on the Singapore Airlines entertainment system, and discovered Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿 Sūn Yan Zī), who instantly leaped into elite status on my playlists despite the fact that I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying. Helen did some translating for me after I got home, and Ms. Sun turns out to have the same sort of melancholy narrative persona that Lydia Salnikova inhabits in her songwriting, which is fine with me except that it doesn’t give me many songs to sing to Helen. But when she does do an in-love song, the result (追 Zhuī / “The Chase”) is one of my all-time favorites – an inventive metaphor in a musical setting that suits it exactly.

At any rate, one thing I was looking forward to in coming back to Singapore, was the chance of finding another first-class Mandopop artist on my outbound flight. And sure enough, after a couple of musical bubbleheads, I ran across Genie Chuo (卓文萱 Zhuó Wénxuān). The first song was good and edgy and angry; the second song was almost as good; the third song was not only very good, but also was melodic and contemplative and showed she had more than a rock string to her bow; in fact every song was enjoyable – though my hands-down favorite was the light-hearted and bouncy and irresistible #7. Instant note to self: go find that Genie Chuo album and buy it.

A couple of days later, armed with a local’s recommendation of “That CD Shop” in the Great World shopping center just a ten minutes’ walk from my hotel, I went off to buy my album. But, as you already know, budgetary disaster struck. The girls in the shop were exceptionally knowledgeable, and they rapidly (and accurately) extrapolated my tastes from the fact that I liked Genie Chuo and Stefanie Sun…and before I knew it, they were playing one artist after another on the store stereo for me, and I was liking all of them. In the end I bought Tanya Chua (to whose mellow but uncompromising and creative soft jazz feel I wound up listening even more than to Genie Chuo, and whom Helen already knew and liked), countertenor Xiao Ma (singing “traditional Chinese songs” at least one of which is the classic “Dance with Me” most recently covered in America by Michael Bublé, and another of which is a fantastic ’40’s swing take on the habanera aria from Carmen), aboriginal Taiwanese artist A-Mei (阿妹 Ā Mēi), young male crooner Aska Yang (楊宗緯 Yáng Zōngwěi), and Rainie Yang (楊丞琳 Yáng Chénglín). Not to mention Yo-Yo Ma jamming out as part of a bluegrass jazz quartet… Well. I’ve enjoyed them all very much, even the musically weakest of the group, which is Rainie Yang. She turns out (according to Wikipedia) to be more of a television personality and actress than a singer – it seems she is best known for having played one of the female leads in an eyebrow-raisingly graphic Taiwanese lesbian movie a few years back. Though I have to admit I have no idea what the Taiwanese bar for “eyebrow-raisingly graphic” is – for all I know, the movie would have been rated PG in California. (Remember Grady Nutt’s bit about watching a movie at Baylor University in the fifties and having the entire student body take instant delight in the fact that the university censors had failed to intercept a sex scene? He fondly remembered that right there up on screen in front of God ‘n’ everybody, the leading actor gave the leading lady a “smoldering gaze.” Censorship fail!! And THAT reminds me of a Baptist joke that, alas, can’t be told on this family blog; but if you don’t know why Baptists avoid a certain amiable activity while standing up, e-mail me and I’ll tell you.)

Unfortunately, that bouncy song #7 that I liked so much and wanted the lyrics to so that I could sing along with it…you know, my favorite song from the airplane? Turns out that the narrator in the song is an empty-headed teenager who is singing either to her parents, or else to a boyfriend who is a few years further along than she is in college and who is MUCH more responsible than she is…and her point seems to be along the lines of Britney Spears’s “Baby What You See Is What You Get” except rather more smart-alecky and irresponsible. I tried to translate it myself and was getting along pretty well until I got to the line, “天知道 我知道 谁杀了一只猫” – which seemed to me to mean, “Heaven knows, and I know, who it was that killed a cat.”

???????????!!!! Is this some sort of Taiwanese folk idiom, or what?

I passed the lyrics on to Helen, who basically said, “It’s a stupid song and the person singing it is stupid and irresponsible and I don’t like the song, and yes, the line about the cat, it means what you think it means, and no, it doesn’t really mean anything – it’s just a stupid song for stupid teenagers, and did I mention I don’t like songs like that?” That’s not an exact quote but it’s pretty much the gist. And I got a second opinion from another grown-up Mandarin speaker who agreed with Helen and said my translation was as accurate a translation as you could expect for a song that makes about as much sense as does your average bubble-headed teenage girl, which is clearly the target demographic for that particular song.

[pouting] Well, I don’t care, it’s still a fun song and I’ll sing it if I want to. [blows a raspberry]

你好不好 其实我不想知道
Nǐ hǎo bù hǎo, qíshí wǒ bù xiǎng zhīdào
Whether things are good with you or not, I don’t really want to know
我好不好 你也别来客套
Wǒ hǎo bù hǎo, nǐ yě bié lái kètào
Whether things are good with me or not, don’t come acting like you care
主角 配角 其实我不太烦恼
Zhǔjué, pèijué, qíshí wǒ bù tài fánnǎo
Starring role, supporting cast, I don’t really care that much
你了不了 我不屑比较
Nǐ liǎo bù liǎo, wǒ bùxiè bǐjiào
Whatever you understand or not, I don’t think it’s worth comparing
天知道 你知道 谁藏了一把刀
Tiān zhīdào, nǐ zhīdào, shéi cáng le yī bǎ dāo
Heaven knows, you know, who was hiding a knife
天知道 我知道 谁杀了一只猫
Tiān zhīdào, wǒ zhīdào, shéi shā le yī zhī māo
Heaven knows, I know, who killed a cat
别炫耀 别骄傲 做作不宜拿翘
Bié xuànyào, bié jiāo’ào, zuòzuo bùyí ná qiào
Don’t show off, don’t be conceited, you look stupid when you put on airs
快祈祷 快治疗 不然就等着逃
Kuài qídǎo, kuài zhìliáo, bùrán jiù děng zhe táo
Quick, say your prayers; quick, make the cure; or else you’re just waiting for me to run away
小心我会哇哇叫 让这【个】世界看热闹
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, ràng zhè[ge] shìjiè kànrènao
Careful, I know how to weep and wail and give the public a good show
谁的完美能丢掉 天塌下来我也不鸟
Shéi de wánměi néng diūdiào, tiān tā xiàlai wǒ yě bù niǎo
Whose perfection can be thrown away, I could care less if the sky falls
小心我会哇哇叫 别说我不礼貌
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, bié shuō wǒ bù lǐmào
Careful, I know how to weep and wail, don’t say I’m being rude
做自己 天经地义 真糟糕
Zuò zìjǐ tiānjīngdìyì – zhēn zāogāo
I make my own rules – too bad for you.
你罩不罩 我一点都不需要
Nǐ zhào bù zhào, wǒ yīdiǎn dōu bù xūyào
Whether you protect me or not, I don’t need anything at all
我瞧一瞧 难道怕你反咬
Wǒ qiáo yī qiáo, nándào pà nǐ fǎn yǎo
I take a quick look – could it be you’re afraid to bite back?
斤斤计较 只有你这麽无聊
Jīnjīnjìjiào, zhǐyǒu nǐ zhème wúliáo
Haggling over every little thing, you’re just so boring
你了不了 别搞我就好
Nǐ liǎo bù liǎo, bié gǎo wǒ jiù hǎo
Whether you understand or not, don’t give me a hard time
小心我会哇哇叫 让这【个】世界看热闹
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, ràng zhè[ge] shìjiè kànrènao
Careful, I know how to weep and wail and give the public a good show
谁的完美能丢掉 天塌下来我也不鸟
Shéi de wánměi néng diūdiào, tiān tā xiàlai wǒ yě bù niǎo
Whose perfection can be thrown away, I could care less if the sky falls
小心我会哇哇叫 别说我不礼貌
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, bié shuō wǒ bù lǐmào
Careful, I know how to weep and wail, don’t say I’m being rude
做自己 天经地义 真糟糕
Zuò zìjǐ tiānjīngdìyì – zhēn zāogāo
I make my own rules – too bad for you.
胡说八道 谁能受得了
Húshuōbādào shéi néng shòu déliǎo
You’re talking rubbish – who can stand such suffering?
莫名奇妙 你没你想的重要
Mòmíng, qímiào, nǐ méi nǐ xiǎng de zhòngyào
indescribable, amazing, you’re not as important as you think
无理取闹 我背地里笑
Wúlǐqǔnào, wǒ bèidìli xiào
Just being provocative, I’m smiling behind your back
你很老 你很老 你很老套
Nǐ hěn lǎo, nǐ hěn lǎo, nǐ hěn lǎotào
You’re so old, you’re so old, you’re so old-fashioned
小心我会哇哇叫 让这【个】世界看热闹
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, ràng zhè[ge] shìjiè kànrènao
Careful, I know how to weep and wail and give the public a good show
谁的完美能丢掉 天塌下来我也不鸟
Shéi de wánměi néng diūdiào, tiān tā xiàlai wǒ yě bù niǎo
Whose perfection can be thrown away, I could care less if the sky falls
小心我会哇哇叫 别说我不礼貌
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, bié shuō wǒ bù lǐmào
Careful, I know how to weep and wail, don’t say I’m being rude
做自己 天经地义
Zuò zìjǐ tiānjīngdìyì
I make my own rules…
啦啦啦啦啦啦 啦啦啦啦啦啦
La la la la la la, la la la la la la
啦啦啦啦啦啦 天塌下来也不鸟
La la la la la la tiān tā xiàlai wǒ yě bù niǎo
I could care less if the sky falls
小心我会哇哇叫 别说我不礼貌
Xiǎoxīn wǒ huì wāwā jiào, bié shuō wǒ bù lǐmào
Careful, I know how to weep and wail, don’t say I’m being rude
做自己 天经地义真糟糕
Zuò zìjǐ tiānjīngdìyì – zhēn zāogāo
I make my own rules – too bad for you.
真糟糕
Zhēn zāogāo
too bad for you

UPDATE: I did manage to find a live version on YouTube, though its primary effect is to make me think it’s a good thing there are music studios. Not exactly high-quality recording; the muddiness of the sound and the bad acoustics rob it of the light-hearted bouncy quality that’s what I really like about it. Besides, I think it’s a promo appearance for her new album, and she’s basically just mailing in some on-stage karaoke. The opening four syllables of each line require crisp staccato treatment, which is there on the album; but here she just sort of slurs her way through them. There is no band. She doesn’t even stay in character during the musical bridges but instead fills in the time by waving to people in the crowd and saying howdy to them so as not to be bored while she waits until it’s time to sing again. Just generally speaking a lazy performance. [sigh] I almost didn’t link it. But in the end I decided that you can sort of get a feel for the intent of the song, at least. I do promise you that on the CD she actually manages to hit the right pitch on the high note of “tiān-JING-dìyì” rather than just landing somewhere in the same register and calling it close enough…

In Which I Say Nothing About the Fine Folks in Singapore with Whom I Spent the Last Three Weeks…

…as a matter of conformity to corporate policy.

So, yes, I was in Singapore for the past three weeks, and if I told you why, then while I don’t think I’d have to kill you, I do think you’d all have to sign releases with BG’s corporate lawyers or something. In particular, I am not allowed to mention on this blog any fellow BG employees, including those whom I have known for far longer than either of us have worked at BG and for some of whose children I might, purely hypothetically speaking you understand, serve as godfather. I am particularly constrained in discussing my highly enjoyable weekend at Fraser’s Hill in Singapore, to the extent that in order to tell some of the stories I want to tell, I’ll have to bend the truth somewhat – something I really hate doing on this blog, as I try very hard to be strictly factually accurate in what I write here, and I hate not giving credit where lots of credit is due. I’ll just say that I’m not smart enough or widely traveled enough to have known about Fraser’s Hill (or, for that matter, That CD Store) on my own, and that’ll have to do.

I hate being apart from my wife, especially because she is in the habit of sending me pictures to make sure I don’t forget her, which pictures have all the effect she desires and more. This one, for example:

Helen at Oyster Creek Park

And I really, really dislike being in a timezone that’s practically inverted from Houston time, where there’s only a very small overlapping period where both she and I are awake and free of work or domestic obligations.

But if I’m going to have to go to the Australasian Pacific Rim, then Singapore is a good choice, both because I like Singapore, and because I very much like a whole bunch of people I’m not allowed to mention. Of course, it is quite obvious that my big-city-girl, Mandarin- and English-speaking Chinese wife whose dream is to travel the world, would like 新加坡 even more than I do; but as that particular thought doesn’t exactly make it easier to not miss her, I suppress it as much as possible. Also I will, for the rest of these posts, do no more whining about missing my wife and children, as my purpose is to entertain rather than depress.

Singapore has a very distinctive appearance, it seems to me – lots of very tall buildings, even in residential areas, but at the same time lush greenness everywhere you look. The price of real estate on this small island where millions of people live, means that if you have enough land to build on, you tend to build things tall. But the equatorial climate – if Singapore were uninhabited it would be jungle – means that any square foot of land that doesn’t have a building on it, is overflowing with lush vegetation. So all the tall, skinny apartment buildings appear to have thrust their way into the open air from the thick of a forest:

View from room in St Regis Hotel (2011)

Sunset from room in southwest corner of Pan Pacific Serviced Suites (Orchard), in Singapore

When I say “skinny,” I mean skinny. There are a surprising number of apartment buildings that clearly are designed to be only one apartment thick, so that the residents can have 270-degree panoramic views:

Apartment building in Singapore (2011)

I really like the effect produced by the mixture of skyscraper and rain forest, myself. And on this particular trip, I spent most of my stay at a place called the Pan Pacific Serviced Suites, which has been built in a U-shape with the central atrium left out in the open air. Then every six or seven floors the two ends of the U are joined by a small deck with an open-air garden and water feature and comfy chairs, with a spectacular view looking east toward the Central Business District (“CBD”) and the three-towers-topped-by-a-ship architecture of the Marina Bay Sands Resort. The view is very nice during the day…

View across 15th-floor sky-garden of Pan Pacific Serviced Suites, with Marina Bay Sands Resort in distance (2012)

…as well as at dusk (remember that in this view we are looking east, away from the sunset).

Downtown Singapore at sunset, looking east from 15th-floor sky-garden of Pan Pacific Serviced Suites (2012)

It gets downright spectacular at night:

But to see it at its very best, one must get up at 6:00 and drink one’s morning cup of tea amidst the glory of the sunrise.

Sunrise over Singapore, from the Pan Pacific (2012)

I mentioned the Marina Bay Sands Resort a few pictures ago. Last year I actually paid $20 to get up to the top of the Marina Bay Sands, having received a tip from my friend Dan Kirtane, whom I certainly hope you, Gentle Reader, are fortunate enough to know. It’s a very odd structure – and I myself don’t know whether I mean that as a compliment or not.

Marina Bay Sands Resort (2011)

The views from the top are well worth the money (and you should certainly go at night).

Looking out toward the Port of Singapore from the observation deck of the Marina Bay Sands Resort (2011). The row of white lights about halfway out runs along the shore; beyond that all the lights belong to ships.

Looking down on the Singapore Ferris wheel from the top of the Marina Bay Sands Resort (2011)

I had with me only an iPhone, and so I fear the pictures are very far from doing justice to the scene. That, I could live with, as I am not much of a picture-taker (much to the resigned annoyance of my wife). A more bitter pill to swallow was the fact that you are not allowed to swim in the “infinity pool” unless you are an actual guest at the resort. What, you ask, is the “infinity pool”? Why, that’s the swimming pool that’s on the very top, and that goes right to the edge of the open-air deck that serves as the resort’s roof, so that you can swim over and rest your arms on the side of the pool and look straight down to the street fifty-five stories below you. If I ever get rich I’ll rent a room at that resort for a single night just so that I can jump in that pool and swim over to the edge and gaze out into th’ Infinite.

Looking out across the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool toward downtown Singapore (2011)

Or I could walk to the other side of the deck and kick back in one of the hot tubs that gives you a view looking south out over the harbor. That would work, too. (Yes, of course they have swimming pools on the ground for guests who are scared of heights.)

But that was last year. This year, I mostly worked, both day and night, except for a fruitful trip to That CD Store (albeit one that got me into some domestic hot water) and a thoroughly enjoyable weekend expedition to Fraser’s Hill in Malaysia – and each of those trips gets its own post. So I’ll close this one off with just a few recommendations to any Gentle Readers headed for Singapore. As a side point, anybody familiar with a map of downtown Singapore is going to read my recommendations and immediately realize that I only have two modes: either stay very very very close to my hotel (I ate dinner at Applebee’s across the street from my hotel every night for two straight weeks this trip), or else go gallivanting off hundreds of miles into the Malaysian jungle.

I recommend that, as soon as you hit town, you immediately call up the Brasserie Wolf on Robertson’s Walk, find out which day is the next day they’ll be serving chestnut soup, and then go on that day and enjoy their set two-course lunch. (Don’t bother with the dessert that comes with the three-course meal; it is tasty, but too tiny to be worth the additional ten dollars.)

I recommend that, if you can find a relatively cool, cloudy day for it, you go for a walk around Fort Canning Park. But be sure you pay attention to the warning signs, as, “But I’m a foreigner and couldn’t understand the sign” will hardly be accepted as an excuse:

But where is the Braille??

I’ll recommend that some time be spent at Clarke Quay on the tiny Singapore River, firstly during the day…

Clarke Quay and the Singapore River

…and then again at night when the sidewalks are full of upscale pubcrawlers and you might spot either a sidewalk acrobat who can balance a glass ball on his head for a full minute…

Guy balancing glass ball on his head, on pedestrian bridge at Clarke Quay (2012)

…or else an American who is being introduced to the spicy crab that is a local specialty and is taking no chances on messing up his shirt.

Taking no chances with the shirt (at Clarke Quay, 2011)

Oh, and the reason you go there during the day, is that the price of beer is dependent upon the time of day – quite reasonable at lunchtime, but it inches up as the hours go by and will really set you back by 9:00 p.m. or so. Isn’t capitalism a wonderful thing? (I actually mean that seriously – I find it delightful that the enterprising pub owners along the Quay were creative enough to note that demand for beer varied sharply depending on time of day, and, being strictly limited in supply of seating, responded by adjusting prices accordingly.) The reason to go there after the sun goes down is the same reason you go anywhere in Singapore after the sun goes down: it’s not so bloody hot.

Of course, if you’re sufficiently unfortunate to be at Clarke Quay on the night of a free musical festival, you might have to fight your way through a mass of screaming, in-throes-of-ecstasy teenaged girls as a band of hyperchoreographed Asian Justin Bieber wannebes sing and strut robotically and overdramatically about the stage like the unholy result of an amiable encounter involving Britney Spears, Jim Carrey and Bruce Lee. (The Voice of Experience speaks.) Still, in this respect I think I was singularly unfortunate, and you are likely to be spared a repetition of my experience.

If you like the sort of shopping that requires credit cards with very high limits, or if you like being out on a Friday night among claustrophobia-inducing throngs of very well-dressed people, then a walk up and down Orchard Street of an evening is sure to give satisfaction. This is also a great place to go if you are a single young Gentleman Reader who likes to see lots of young and attractive Chinese women whose wardrobe choices are – how shall I put this? – very definitely designed to attract. (No, of course I don’t have any pictures. I have my own old-enough-to-have-outgrown-the-stupid-but-young-enough-not-to-have-outlived-the-hot, all-too-distractingly-attractive Chinese wife already, and I haven’t the slightest interest in a downgrade; so I mostly found said young Chinese women to be annoying hindrances in my being able to get where I was going without having my path blocked every few seconds. And that’s actually the stone cold truth, not just something I’m saying in order to stay out of trouble with Helen.) On the other hand, having said that, I feel honor-bound to pass on to you single Western Gentlemen Readers who might suddenly have discovered a hitherto unsuspected craving to visit Singapore, a warning that I have received more than once, from more than one local source: Singapore women are notoriously Material Girls. It has in fact been explained to me, on at least two separate occasions, that Singapore girls rate men on a scale involving “the Five C’s,” namely, Cash, Credit card (that only counts as one C, apparently), Career, Car, and some other word starting with “C” that I don’t remember but that very definitely was NOT “Character.”

If, on the other hand, you like your shopping but like it at bargain rates, then you head down to Victoria Street and find the Bugis indoor bazaar – which is, actually, quite difficult to find even when you’re standing right in front of it, since the entrance is a narrow and nondescript doorway in the middle of a row of street-fronting shops. I saw quite a few help-wanted signs but they all required you to know Mandarin, which is far away the dominant language of both vendors and customers.

Inside Bugis Village (2011)

Finally, if you are an orthodox Christian and especially if you are of conservative Anglican tastes, I very highly recommend the English services at St Andrew’s Cathedral, which is a hospitably welcoming, clearly thriving, thoroughly evangelical community. (I’m sure the Mandarin services are just as good, but can’t recommend them on personal experience.) The cathedral is more in the tradition of Victorian English high-steepled, “wedding-cake” parish churches rather than that of the great Gothic cathedrals of York or Canterbury, though it has fewer former servants of the parish buried under the central aisle than does your average four-hundred-year-old English country church. But it is a very nice example of that architectural tradition, and the modern-day television screens installed on the buttresses are much less discordant than they would be in Notre-Dame (I mean the one in Paris, not the one in South Bend).

After the Eucharist at St Andrew’s Cathedral (2011)

A word of caution, though: be sure you study your map before going there, so that you can tell your cabby how to get there. And – again, the Voice of Experience speaks – if your cabby doesn’t know where St Andrew’s Cathedral is, it will do you no good to tell him, “It’s on St Andrew Street.” (Oddly, it frequently happens to me that I hop into a Singapore cab and then have to spend the trip telling the cabby where to turn next; so it’s a good thing that I have a deep-seated psychological need to know where I am at all times and therefore spend every cab ride compulsively memorizing the route the cabby is taking – meaning that after four weeks’ experience in Singapore, usually, when my cabby doesn’t know where I want to go, I actually CAN tell him where to turn next. I suppose that the only other alternative, since Singapore cabs don’t ordinarily have GPS devices, would be to get out of the cab and try to flag another one down.)

In short, I like Singapore very much, and it is well worth visiting. Only, if you can, given prices in Singapore, it’s best to arrange to do it at somebody else’s unfortunately quite significant expense. And also, it’s much better if you can take your wife. Oh, rats, I said I wasn’t going to whine for the rest of the post…and I came so close

In Which I Indulge Myself in Husbandly Bragging

I told you, didn’t I, that my wife is a first-class writer in Mandarin? I told those of you who read Mandarin that your time would be better spent in reading her blog than mine, didn’t I?

Well, she just got an e-mail from a newspaper in Taiwan wanting to know where to send her check. That would be because the professional Chinese author who did the Mandarin translation of The Love Dare is a fan of Helen’s blog and told her she should submit this article to the newspaper for publication. So she did, and sure enough they published it, and now they want to know where to send her check.

[smiling] And do you know the nicest thing about my lovely and funny and extremely talented wife? Her response to my telling her, “Oh, man, I am going straight to the blog and some braggin’ is about to commence,” was to insist that the main takeaway from all of this…is that she has been right all this time in telling me that I should publish a book — “because you’re a much better writer than I am.” And the truly endearing thing is that she is 100% sincere. 100% wrong, of course, because even I, who can only read Mandarin with a dictionary and a lot of help, can tell that she sees the world through a special pair of eyes and has a gift for communicating that vision to the rest of us. So, yes, 100% wrong. But 100% sincere.

[laughing] You know, all I do is tell the truth about her, and she thinks I am an outrageous flatterer and that I exaggerate shamelessly. [shakes head helplessly] She simply can’t believe that I mean it when I tell her how special she is, because nothing she does seems special to her.

Man, I can’t wait to get home.

A Sunday morning in Brisbane

I find myself this morning, due to business necessity, in Brisbane, which is my first time visiting this particular city. St. John’s Cathedral is, conveniently, two blocks from my hotel room; and so thither I hied myself for Sunday morning’s choral Eucharist.

Actually, I didn’t go there first thing in the morning. Brisbane was not originally on my itinerary – I came here straight from three weeks in Singapore, with a bunch of clothing that had been packed for Singapore’s equatorial climate. Here in Brisbane it’s mid-winter, and while Brisbane is not exactly Calgary, there’s still a pleasant little nip in the air – high fifties / low sixties Fahrenheit. I find this very refreshing, but the last time I was in a place with weather like this and enjoyed myself by wandering around in short sleeves, I caught a cold and made my wife feel guilty. (Helen, being Chinese, considers it part of her wifely duty to keep her husband healthy, and therefore when I carelessly get myself sick, SHE feels guilty.) So I checked with her, and, just as I suspected, she wanted me to go buy a jacket. Also an umbrella to replace the one I left on my temporary desk in the Singapore office.

So I actually started my day looking for (a) free WiFi (since my hotel wants to charge BG a sizable chunk of cash for in-room internet) and (b) a “Big W” store, per the suggestion of the concierge in re the acquisition of jackets and umbrellas. I figured Starbucks would handle the free internet, but, alas, it turns out they want to charge BG even more than the hotel does. And Big W turned out to be due to open at 10:00, not 9:00. So I wasn’t able to get the jacket and umbrella until after the 9:30 Eucharist was over.

Good news, bad news. The good news: when I did go back to Big W, not only did they have reasonably priced jackets and umbrellas, but they were also able to tell me where I could get free WiFi. The bad news? Well, here’s how the WiFi conversation went:

ME: Is there any place nearabouts that offers free WiFi?

FRIENDLY AND HELPFUL SALES CLERK: Yes, as a matter of fact, you can get free WiFi at Mackers, right up the street.

ME (trying to remember having seen a sign for “Mackers” in yesterday’s peregrinations up and down Queen Street, and failing): What exactly is Mackers?

FAHSC (realizing that she is speaking to an ignorant American): Oh, I’m sorry, I mean MacDonald’s.

Yes, Gentle Reader, in order to get WiFi in Brisbane, I apparently have to subject myself to the culinary vileness that is Mickey D’s. (See, I can do slang too. So there.) Or her second alternative, which I did remember having seen yesterday: Hungry Jack’s, whose sign had struck me as an interesting mélange of copyright violation, since it was basically a knockoff of a Whataburger logo with the “Whataburger” name replaced with a knockoff of the Jack-in-the-Box name. In short: you want WiFi in Brisbane, then either your wallet or your stomach has to pay a high price.

To be sure, there’s a sign up in one of the nearby city parks that cheerfully informs me that “free Council WiFi is coming.” Which means that, after I have gone home to Texas, the City of Brisbane is going to start providing free WiFi to people who wish to sit in the park and run their laptop batteries down to zero. But this will do me personally no good whatsoever.

— I interrupt myself here to pass on the following conversation with my far-too-intelligent wife, who just called to talk for a bit. We talked briefly, and then she apologized for having to hang up, as it was time to put Kai to bed. Now I know from experience that it often happens that Kai outlasts her and she winds up asleep in his room while he’s still awake; so I wanted to tell her not to feel obliged to call me back tonight.

ME: Oh, and honey, don’t feel like you have to call me back tonight – if you go to sleep before Kai does, don’t feel guilty about not calling me.

HELEN: Well if that happens I won’t feel guilty anyway. I CAN’T feel guilty – I’ll be ASLEEP.

Fair point, that.

While I’m passing on conversations, I should mention the State of Origin. While I was waiting for the Starbucks barista to make my tea, I idly observed what at first glance appeared to be dueling tip jars, with an odd mix of money and paper. But upon closer inspection I found that one of the jars was labeled “QLD” and the other “NSW,” which are the abbreviations for “Queensland” and “New South Wales,” respectively. And there was a sign above the jars reading, “Which will be the State of Origin?” Now I could hardly imagine there being any unsettled historical question about which of the two states was first to be established or anything of that sort, much less that such a question would be amenable to settlement by means of a poll of Starbucks clientele. So I asked the barista what was going on. Turns out “State of Origin” is the title given to the state whose rugby team has most recently taken the lead in a long-running series of rugby matches, the next of which matches is due to be played on Wednesday.

“It’s a big deal,” the barista told me with a smile. “The next one is in Brisbane; so a lot of people will come into town. There’ll be a lot of hitting the pubs and drinking too much.”

I feigned astonishment: “In Australia??”

Without batting an eye, she ran with the joke. “It’s hard to believe, I know. But then, that’s how you know it’s a special occasion.”

At any rate, back to the cathedral. It’s a perfectly serviceable cathedral, with standard neoGothic design (towering stone buttresses, stained glass windows, etc.) despite having been built relatively recently.

From my seat in St John’s Cathedral

As I think tradition is more valuable than imagination when it comes to cathedral architecture, I fully approved of the design choice. One thing that struck me, though, is that this cathedral shows a surprising touch of Eastern Orthodox influence – the Lady Chapel in particular was surely intended to make one feel that one is in a Greek Orthodox church. I liked the effect, myself.

The best thing about St John’s, however, is not the architecture, but the music (at least this Sunday morning). First of all, they have a top-notch organist playing a top-notch organ – a very important asset if one is going to have a pseudo-medieval Gothic cathedral, precisely because that kind of music was crafted specifically to sound good in the unusual, and difficult, acoustic environment of a medieval Gothic cathedral. Modern “praise and worship” music isn’t just culturally incongruous in such a setting – it’s musically at war with its physical surroundings, which conspire both to muddy and to weaken the sound. (One of the reasons a modern-day megachurch building looks nothing at all like a Gothic cathedral, is that such buildings are intentionally designed to have acoustic profiles that enhance modern praise-and-worship music, and thus they look much more like a modern concert arena than like a traditional church. And this is an entirely appropriate architectural design decision once you have made the decision to build your corporate worship experience around a modern musical style.)

That bit was hardly unique, of course, as most Gothic cathedrals have high-dollar pipe organs, and in a city like Brisbane there’s bound to be at least one concert-quality organist who can be hired to play it. The choir, however, was something genuinely new for me: it was a hybrid boys’ choir and mixed adult choir. It was perfect for the environment and left me wondering why this isn’t common practice. There is a difference in quality between a boy’s soprano and an adult woman’s (partly why castrati were so highly valued in the heyday of Mozart), and there is no musical instrument more perfectly designed to ring clear and piercing and haunting in the cathedral environment than the boy soprano voice. Yet the inclusion of adults allowed the choral repertoire to expand to include music written for traditional SATB that wouldn’t work at all well with a pure boys’ choir. The results were startlingly successful.

As for the sermon…well, I won’t discuss the sermon in detail in this post. Partly this is because I’ll devote an entire separate post to it, as I found it fascinating as an example of all of the major ways in which preachers of inadequate training and/or intellectual integrity go about imposing their own preconceptions and obsessions on texts that don’t actually support the points they desperately want to make. And it was fascinating to me theologically and personally as well. For I agreed with a lot of the intermediate points of the sermon – indeed, in one place in particular it caused me to realize something true and useful about the text and I actually felt that he was onto something worth pursuing further – and yet he careened off the path by the end, carried away, as I say, by his own preoccupations. I agreed with so much that he said, and yet I disagreed with everything he really cared about saying. I would love to get to spend a long, comfortable winter’s afternoon in front of a fire talking to him, trying to find my way imaginatively into the intellectual space he inhabits (not trying to change his mind, you understand, as there was nothing in the sermon that would lead me to believe his mind is changeable on what, clearly, are his most fundamental bedrock convictions). For his sincerity and good intentions were apparent.

But that would be a theological discussion, and this is not a theological post – and I try to keep the two sharply separated, as I know that many of you, Gentle Readers, enjoy my silliness and my travel observations but have no interest in God-talk.

One thing, though – I very much wish that I knew more about what the bishop thought of the sermon. And the reason I would like to know, is that he had throughout the air of a man who is suffering in silence. His body language seemed to me very eloquent: he stared straight down at his own lap for twenty solid minutes, hardly moving a muscle. You know how, when a person in an audience is emotionally in tune with the speaker, they are constantly, though subtly, in motion? Actually, if you have not done much public speaking, you may not, in fact, realize this; so let me try to explain. When the audience is “with you,” so to speak, they make plenty of eye contact with you, and they don’t sit still. I don’t mean that they fidget; that’s quite different. They lean forward to concentrate as you use your tone and language to let them know that you’re about to make a crucial point; they lean back in their seats to relax and let what they’ve just heard sink in; they nod; they smile; they narrow their eyes and cock their heads slightly to one side when they aren’t sure they are understanding what you’re trying to say; they frown either in concentration or in disagreement (and it’s easy to tell the two different frowns apart). If they are concentrating very intently indeed, they may stop moving for a few moments; but that intensity of concentration is not something most of us can keep up for very long, and so they will relax when they feel themselves on more familiar ground and will go back to swaying and nodding and smiling and frowning. In other words, they move constantly, but they move with you, in response to the things you’re saying.

If they’re bored, on the other hand, their eyes wander around the building or down into their laps, and they fidget – meaning they don’t sit still, but their movements have nothing to do with you or with anything you’re saying.

But a man who stares fixedly down at his lap and doesn’t move a muscle while I speak, is usually a man who does not at all care for what I am saying and is trying very hard to be polite and not say anything. He shrinks in on himself and locks down his outward expression, in his body language as well as his facial expression. And that’s exactly what the bishop looked like throughout the sermon. So maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole thing, but it sure looked like the bishop found the sermon objectionable but felt that in that situation he was not free to object. I could be wrong, of course; but that’s precisely why I’d be very interested to hear the bishop’s candid opinion of the sermon – I just would like to know whether I read the situation correctly or not.

At any rate, I’ve been working long days and weekends for the past three weeks; and so today I’m giving myself one day where I won’t allow myself to think about work at all. So perhaps you’ll get some Singapore or Malaysia traveloguing out of me before the day’s out. You won’t get it right away, though, because I just discovered that this Starbucks doesn’t have any public restrooms; so, um, I’m outta here. Cheers.

UPDATE: I am delighted to report that The Coffee Club has free WiFi for customers, along with a quite serviceable ribeye, and (even better) cheesecake that is topped with raspberry rather than strawberry.