Why is it hard to be married to the Peril?

Because when the Peril is your husband, even when he’s trying to compliment you, things can get…well, let’s say unorthodox.

[SCENE: Helen and Kai are talking to each other near where the Peril is working, and the Peril decides an observation needs to be made.]

PERIL: Kai, you do realize, I hope, that your mother is one of the cutest women alive?

[Kai laughs, Helen rolls her eyes, and then something undeniably true occurs to the Peril]

PERIL: And as a matter of fact, she’s cuter than most of the dead ones, too…

Well that’s one way to get out of jury duty

Didn’t get picked for jury duty. It took about sixty seconds for everyone in the room to know I would not get picked, thanks to the following opening conversation:

 D.A. [to the entire panel]: The case you’ve been selected to serve on is a juvenile case, for possession of marijuana. Does anyone here have any experience with the juvenile justice system? [Upon my raising my hand:] Yes, Juror #24?

 ME: One of my kids got in trouble a few years ago.

 D.A.: Do you think that would keep you from giving a fair verdict in this case?

 ME [laughing]: No, I don’t think so myself.

 D.A. [clearly skeptical of my prospects for objectivity]: Was it a marijuana possession case?

 ME: No, it wasn’t. But I think what is probably of more relevance to the present case is the fact that the lawyer I retained in my kid’s defense was Sam Dick.

 At this point the judge, the D.A., and the defense attorney – whom, I haven’t yet mentioned, I had instantly recognized as Chad Dick, my own lawyer’s son and partner – all broke into laughter, and Chad turned around to the judge and called out cheerfully, “We’ll take THIS one!”

Still, despite the fact that from that point forward it was blindingly obvious that there was no way in the world any judge or D.A. was going to let me on a jury to try one of Chad’s clients, I had to sit through another hour and a half of voir dire before they released me along with the other seventeen people who also didn’t get picked.

But at least I don’t have to go back tomorrow.

A most pleasant surprise discovery

It’s no secret that I hate travelling, and that while on the road I deal with missing my wife so badly by spending practically every waking moment working. (Except when, you know, hanging out in Chinatown whorehouses.) The past two weeks in Singapore were no exception, but I had an unexpected piece of luck this time: Joshua Wan, Melissa Tham (pronounced “Tam”), and whoever their string bassist du jour happened to be on any given day.

I arrived on a Tuesday, and that evening when looking for the hotel restaurant I noticed that (a) the hotel had a nice bar/lounge area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across Marina Bay to the CBD skyline, and (b) they were going to have live jazz in the evenings all weekend long starting on Thursday. The poster displayed prominently in the lobby promised “jazz evenings with Melissa Tham,” of whom I had never heard but who, given the fact that the emphatically five-star Mandarin Oriental was letting her on their premises, I presumed was at least competent. Furthermore the publicity shot they were using for the poster was clearly meant to project an atmosphere of elegance, meaning we were most likely talking soft romantic jazz rather than hard-edged noisy stuff or polyrhythmic experimentation…so, you know, good stuff to listen to while sitting and working on one’s laptop. I made a mental note to head down there that Thursday rather than working in my hotel room, and in due course found myself sitting in the Axis Lounge as a standard jazz trio of pianist, string bassist and songstress took their places.

And within the first few bars I knew I had stumbled across something special. But what I didn’t realize at first was that I hadn’t just discovered a jazz trio of the highest quality musically – I was in for even more of a treat. Because these guys, and most especially the pianist, Joshua Wan, turned out to have keen senses of humor to go with serious musical chops.

I don’t mean to imply that Ms. Tham did the Sammy Geezinslaw shtick of doing stand-up comedy between numbers, or that they were some sort of jazz version of Weird Al. The Axis Lounge is definitely going for a particular atmosphere the keynotes of which are “elegance and sophistication,” and they were careful to stay within the professional parameters thereof. But any musical performer who has ever taken gigs in a restaurant or a lounge or a wedding is used to being treated as background music by patrons who didn’t come there specifically to hear them, and each such musician has his own way of coping with the implied disrespect. These guys? They did it with the musical equivalent of inside jokes.

Now, I am not going to do a serious review of their music in this post, though they certainly deserve one; if I have time I will separately post a low-budget review of their CD’s (which I brought back with me) in which I’ll talk about exactly why I think these guys are absolutely A-level. [UPDATE: Done.] Here I’ll be content merely to say that they obviously have put in their 10,000 hours of practice and have reached the “virtuoso” stage of technical proficiency. Now, Ms. Tham was somewhat constrained by the fact that the casual patron would only really be paying attention to her, since (a) she had the microphone and (b) she was the one in the fancy poster out in the lobby. So she had to behave herself. But Mr. Wan was “just” the pianist sitting in the corner, and playing jazz gave him license to improvise.

The result is that I now know that it is possible to play piano with one’s tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek. (If, that is, you are spectacularly skilled.)

There were nights when the couches and tables surrounding the piano were filled with people who were genuinely locked in on the music, and to those audiences, Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham repaid respect for respect. At other times, however, I would be the only person sitting near the musicians, while the rest of the bar was filled with noisy conversation; and then Mr. Wan would start cutting up.

When he’s being serious, his musical taste is impeccable, and while he might happen to play a riff that would make other pianists say, “Whoa, that was way harder than he just made it sound,” the technique is always in the service of the music. But when he’s feeling impish, he’ll occasionally throw in some over-the-top, Liberace-esque bit of fireworks, with the evident hope (occasionally realized) of making Ms. Tham start laughing rather than singing. So let’s say there’s a point in some particular song that calls for him to provide some light counterpoint to a sustained note sung by Ms. Tham – maybe the opening phrase of “You Go To My Head,” for example. If it’s 8:30, or if people are actually listening, Mr. Wan might do a quick, light right-hand run up the keyboard while Ms. Tham is holding her note on “head…..,” providing a bit of motion underneath her note but not distracting from what she is doing vocally to enrich the note. But if it’s 11:30 and the only people left in the joint are swapping jokes in loud voices, Mr. Wan is liable to do that run up the keyboard, all right…but then instantly to reverse the run back down, and then run it back up, and then finish off with an outrageous fortissimo trill at the top. Or he’ll start playing a bass line that fits the chord progression perfectly but is actually the melody of a completely different song. Or he might take advantage of the fact that he isn’t miked to turn one of Ms. Tham’s up-tempo numbers into an impromptu call-and-response duet, trusting that only Ms. Tham and the bassist will hear him.

Not being miked gives him other opportunities as well. At one point, while they were still getting used to my sitting as close to them as possible so that I could see Mr. Wan’s hands at work, Ms. Tham sing a lyrical line and Mr. Wan made some smart-aleck comment in response to it, I forget what. Ms. Tham, not having seen that one coming, dropped her note and started to laugh, whipping the mike away from her mouth as is her habit when Mr. Wan manages to catch her off guard. But then it registered on her that I was laughing too, and her eyes widened as she blurted, “You HEARD that?” Her chagrin was funnier than his original line.

At one point late on the Friday just before I left, they did an up-tempo number in A-flat that from time to time in the verse would transition up to a B-major and then back down. It was late, and I was the only one paying any attention, and Mr. Wan was feeling his oats. So every time they transitioned up, he would start raining black-key glissandi down the keyboard. By the end of the song he was two-handing the things like a pentatonic Jerry Lee Lewis. I don’t typically videotape live performers as most of them consider that very much not comme il faut, but in this case I couldn’t resist and whipped out my iPhone. I spent the last half of the song focused carefully on Mr. Wan as he went more or less nuts, while Ms. Tham tried (and largely failed) to keep a straight face. Only when the song was over did Ms. Tham notice the iPhone, and I got exactly the same sort of chagrined interrogation as before: “You were videotaping that??”

I laughed half-apologetically. “Yeah, I couldn’t resist getting Joshua on the black keys.”

Mr. Wan was laughing himself. “I’ve been waiting all night for that B-major chord.” He threw one more black-gey glissando down for good measure.

It wasn’t until later that I tried to watch it again and discovered that I had missed the on-button when I started “taping,” and so when I thought I was stopping recording I was actually starting the recording; so I missed all of the musical bit and instead got a video of my pants leg and the post-song conversation. Ah well.

Mr. Wan is good with the excuses, too. On their CD Quietly they do a very nice, and very technically impressive, version of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” switching effortlessly back and forth between 7/8 time and a normal 4-beat. Now this is the sort of song that, if you’re going to do it live, requires plenty of practice and coordination, and while Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham are clearly as comfortable with each other as it’s very well possible for two musicians to be, still I knew perfectly well that practically every time I saw them they had a different bassist. So I was pulling their chain a little bit when I decided to tell them, at one of the breaks, “You know, I’m in the mood for a little 7/8, and I like your take on ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ – how would you feel about doing that?” They gave each other an eloquent look and then Mr. Wan laughed, “Oh, we only add the 7/8 in post[-production] – we don’t ever do that in real time.”

But the high point of the week came last Thursday night. Thursday nights are typically slow at the Axis, and for the last hour and a half, while there were other patrons in the lounge, none of them were sitting in the part of the lounge that had line of sight to the trio; so it was very obvious that nobody was listening except me. The bassist, whose name was Benjamin, was clearly a good friend of theirs; and they all began goofing off, though being careful to keep the music going so that the casual listener wouldn’t notice that the background music had stopped. Their laughter got more and more frequent as they each tried to see who could crack the others up – it was like nothing so much as the old Carol Burnett show in which the sketch members all tried to “ruin” the sketch by making the other cast members lose it. The absurdity finally reached its peak when both Ms. Tham and Mr. Wan dropped out to give Benjamin a solo. But as he started his solo, both Ms. Tham and Mr. Wan said to Benjamin, several times, “Ten! Ten!” holding up open hands to show ten fingers. I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure Benjamin did. And I know what happened next – they began deliberately trying to throw Benjamin off, counting and snapping their fingers deliberately off-beat both from Benjamin’s beat and each other’s. Benjamin just closed his eyes, blocked them out, and kept jamming, staying perfectly true to the original beat as his tormentors’ motions and finger-snapping got more and more exaggerated, and as I laughed harder and harder. Finally Mr. Wan sat back down with a wicked gleam in his eye…and started gleefully playing “Für Elise.” But even that didn’t get to Benjamin, whose powers of concentration were clearly extraordinary. By now my glasses were on the table in front of me and my face was buried in my hands, as I was helpless with laughter.

At this point Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham conceded. But Benjamin now clearly decided that it was his turn to torment them. And so he began to act more like a drum soloist than a bassist. You know how, when a rock’n’roll band is taking solo turns they all stick to the beat, but when it’s time for the drum solo he just goes nuts and nobody else even tries to stick with him? Or like the climax of Marty’s guitar jam in Back to the Future, where by the end he’s clearly not really playing the song anymore but instead is just doing cool stuff with the guitar? Well, now I’ve seen a string bassist approach his solo with that attitude. He left the key, he left the beat, he started doing stuff that was as much sound effect as music, he at one point was playing chords on three strings at once in an apparent attempt to turn his string bass into a giant guitar, I started expecting that at any moment he might forget himself entirely and look for a speaker to smash his string bass against – it was a pity there were no groupies there to throw their panties onto the stage. A couple of minutes in, the other two started trying to get ready to come back in as they ordinarily would do – but he clearly was having none of it. I mean, he wouldn’t LET them back in. Mr. Wan made a couple of ineffectual tries to identify the key and join back in but the moment he would try, Benjamin would (musically) run away. Finally Mr. Wan stood back up from the piano bench, looked out across the grand piano at Ms. Tham and the room in general, and said, “Well…you wanna go get a drink?”

Alas, all good things must end; and so a couple of minutes later Benjamin opened his eyes, made eye contact with his partners, and played a recognizable jazz bass line that clearly reestablished beat and key. Miss Tham lifted the mike back to her mouth, Mr. Wan came in on the pickup notes, and off they went to finish the song.

I don’t know about them, but that’s the most fun I’ve ever had involving live jazz.

But here’s the thing: through all of these shenanigans, the music never stopped, and never stopped sounding good. It was, um, unorthodox, but there was never any question that the sounds coming from their instruments were exactly the sounds they wanted to make. And so, as far as I could tell, nobody else even noticed. Their last set of the night ended a few minutes later and they headed off into the night, but I stuck around long enough to ask the girl who was keeping me supplied with potables, “So, did you notice what they were doing?”

She looked at me and furrowed her eyes. “They were playing Beethoven, weren’t they? Did you request that? I could tell you were really enjoying it.” Which was, to be honest, an answer that had rather more truth in it than I had expected; so well done her.

Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham’s contract with the Mandarin Oriental runs through the end of May. They play Thursday and Friday nights in the Axis Lounge on the fourth floor from 8:00 to 12:00, generally in four sets. They also play in the Melt Café across the hotel lobby during Sunday brunch. If you’re in Singapore between now and then, don’t miss them. (While you’re there, if the person who is waiting on you has a name-tag reading either “Nick” or “Karen,” tell them you were sent by Mr. Pierce, formerly of Room 814, who wouldn’t mind just one more Maker’s Mark on the rocks.) And if you want their CD, they’ll probably send you one if you e-mail their manager at noirrecords@gmail.com — or, if you’re in the States, maybe you can save postage by mailing them a check and getting them to give you permission to just rip a copy of mine. I’d like to send some sales their way, if nothing else out of gratitude for their having made my stay in Singapore so much more bearable; and if you like high-quality soft jazz and the old romantic standards at all, then it’ll be money well spent on your side, and then everybody wins.

Why Helen’s blog routinely refers to “my 傻瓜 husband” (the most charitable translation of shǎguā being “silly”)

I don’t like traveling and so when I do have to go on the road I typically work sixteen- to eighteen-hour days plus weekends, on the theory that if I can pack three weeks’ worth of work into two weeks, then I only have to be away from my family for two weeks rather than three. So a couple of days ago it dawned on me that for nearly a week I had not left my hotel here in Singapore at all, except for the daily trip to the office and a walk down to St. Andrew’s for church on Sunday. Also I hadn’t collected many pictures for Helen, who likes to see pictures when I come back from traveling but rarely gets to because I’m not much of a picture guy. (Probably has something to do with not being nearly as photogenic as Helen is.)

So I decided to take a cab down to 牛车水, which is Mandarin for “Chinatown” — but only in Singapore. (“Niúchē shuǐ literally means “Ox-Cart Water,” which is what the early Chinese settlers called the district.) I figured I would walk around and take a lot of pictures and then find someplace to eat more or less at random, and as I was carrying out this plan, I noticed a little hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar.

Now, I’m not big on karaoke, but Helen enjoys it, and I really like listening to Helen sing; so I’ve gotten to where I enjoy going with her down to the KTV establishments in Houston’s Chinatown and spending an evening listening to Helen sing well while random elderly Chinese gentlemen sing…enthusiastically. And I was, as usual, missing Helen pretty badly. So I decided I would just hang out there and have dinner and pretend she was sitting next to me listening to the other singers.

Now, from the moment I stepped into the room, there was no question of this place’s being a high-toned establishment. True, the locals were very friendly — the two guys playing pool stopped their game pretty much as soon as I came in to come over and introduce themselves and raise a glass in a welcome-stranger toast, for example — but…well, put it this way. Here in Singapore I expect to pay around 25 Sing dollars even for a hamburger, and every time I got a cup of coffee from the lounge at my hotel, they put ten Sing dollars on my bill. Here, I had fried rice and black-pepper chicken and a glass of Chardonnay…and the whole bill was $24. Vintage first-growth French wine it was not. Then there was the fact that I ordered off of their menu — and they promptly rang up a nearby Chinese take-out joint to place my order, which was duly delivered ten or fifteen minutes later by motorcycle.

And, also…they wouldn’t give me the wine or the food until I had paid them cash up-front. So, um, your typical clientele orders the Singapore equivalent of Thunderbird…and then tries to sneak out when you aren’t looking. Gotcha.

I’ve been in some dives, and I have pretty low standards given all the Third World travelling I’ve done, and I have certainly been in very much worse places than this. But a dive it most definitely was — a pleasant and clean dive with friendly people, to be sure, and no reason not to enjoy the unintentional karaoke comedy, but unquestionably still a dive. But after almost two weeks in the Mandarin Oriental, I was, frankly, enjoying the change of pace. The only disappointing thing was that when I tried to call Helen a couple of times I didn’t get through; but then as it was get-the-kids-off-to-school time back in Texas that didn’t surprise me.

A couple of people tried to talk me into singing, but I politely declined, although I did look through the English playlist out of curiosity, and I’ll give them this: they had a very impressively wide variety of English-language tunes. But I hadn’t come there to sing or get drunk and definitely hadn’t come there to pick up women, and I try very hard not to give Helen reason to worry that I will lead myself into temptation, as it were. So when one of the local ladies literally refused to take no for an answer and simply stuck a microphone into my hand, I politely helped finish the song and then excused myself on the, I fear rather transparent (since it was about 9:00 at night), pretense that I had to get back to the hotel for a business meeting. Still and all, except for the necessity of tact at the end, it had been a pleasant and enjoyable and even (astonishingly given that I was in Singapore) affordable evening. And I figured that by now Helen should be done with the morning rush, and I was only a couple of kilometers from the hotel. So I decided to top off the evening by having a pleasant walk back to the hotel while having a nice long conversation with my wife.

Helen answered this time, and the conversation was going swimmingly until I mentioned happily that, largely in order to be reminded of pleasant evenings in her company, I had spent the evening in a karaoke bar in Chinatown, and I was about to share the amusing bit about how lame an excuse I had come up with for avoiding the unwanted attentions of that one young woman (and thus tactfully to draw attention to my scrupulous marital fidelity) — but Helen abruptly seized control of the conversation. The dialog that followed ran more or less along the following lines:

HELEN [in a tone of voice that very clearly communicated the message, “Danger, Will Robinson!”]: You went to a karaoke bar? In Chinatown?

ME: Well, yeah, I’ve gotten to where I like going to karaoke bars with you and so even if I couldn’t be with you tonight it was nice to sit in the karaoke bar and think of you.

HELEN: But you are not allowed to go to karaoke bars, not in Chinatown. Don’t you know what those are?

Well, clearly I didn’t, and so she explained it to me, and it very quickly became apparent that I had basically just called my wife to say, “Hey, honey, guess what? I just spent the evening in a whorehouse in Chinatown because it reminds me so much of you.”

Well played, Kenny. Well played indeed.

I perceived that the story of the friendly young woman who had insisted on my singing with her was not going to be nearly as amusing as I had expected, as I was already quite clear, from Helen’s emphatic exposition, on her opinion of said friendly young lady, and I obviously could forget about collecting any scrupulous-marital-fidelity points for having left right away rather than enjoying the company of said FYL since I had clearly (however unintentionally) blotted my copybook, and led myself into temptation, and given Helen cause to worry, simply by being there in the first place. So I just skipped straight to the “I’m very very sorry, sweetheart, and I promise I won’t go back” bit.

I suppose at least now I know why everybody there was so friendly…

P.S. There is a postscript to this, which is that the next day I was walking through Chinatown with a local Chinese friend who was going to help me get presents for the family (I don’t bargain well in English, much less in Mandarin), and I brought up the karaoke debacle, just to check to see whether or not Helen was being, you know, overprotective. My friend’s verdict? “Um…no, she’s pretty much right. If you want to sing karaoke, I have some friends who go out and sing karaoke every now and then, and they always go to the same two places; so I can find out from them which places are respectable.”

About that time I happened to notice that ahead of us in the street was a signboard for a different karaoke bar than the one I had visited the night before — and this one advertised itself as “Family KTV.” So I pointed it out to my friend and said, “Well, now what about that one? That’s a ‘family’ karaoke place — that one should be okay, right?”

“Ummmm…[with a certain amount of amusement in her voice] probably not.”

(sigh) 我是真的傻瓜先生…I really am a idiot-husband…

 

When the marketing department has no native English speakers…

…you get pitches like this:

When the marketing department has no native English speakers...

In case you can’t read the whole thing, the text, taken from the package of a glow-in-the-dark T-shirt I bought in Singapore for Sally, reads:

We create something different to make you feel special here for all day long with this Singapore glow in the dark collection, but please beware of the envious stare from the others when the night come…

It goes without saying that I think the world needs more marketing departments without native English speakers.

Are all Chinese wives this easy to please?

My wife was recently made so happy by a loving gesture on my part that she wrote a whole blog post about it rather as if I had done something heroic. And what was this astonishing feat of husbandly self-sacrifice? Well, let’s just say that my wife is not exactly reluctant to think well of me… (Also, it was fascinating to me, having always thought of myself as disappointingly short compared to all my male relatives, to discover that my wife thinks of me as being a giant of a man — I have always felt temporarily like an outsized freak of nature every time I’ve been in South China but it had never occurred to me that my wife, being herself Han Chinese, might actually see me that way more or less permanently. Wow, I wonder how she will react when I finally get around to introducing her to my six-foot-seven cousin Joe???)

For those of you who can read Mandarin, her original is I’m certain much better than the translation that follows:

——–

It seems like the third business trip this year, ai-ya! My poor husband, what with his Singapore and Australia projects, is overwhelmed with work. Even when he isn’t traveling, at home he frequently has to reverse sleeping hours because of the time difference with his work. I could hardly stand to watch, couldn’t bear to talk, but he kept up his usual smile. We take turns: I worry about his health, and he teases me.

The other evening, near midnight, I was about to go to bed. He was downstairs, bravely carrying on the fight, getting ready for all-night meetings with his colleagues in Singapore. I had almost finished showering and washing my face and brushing my teeth, when I heard a boom! boom! boom! as that venerable aged person raced up the stairs and came in the door in order to tell me, “I have a little bit of time to take a break, so I’ve come up to keep you company. Would you like me to read you a book? Or maybe tell you a joke? Or sing to you?  Or, maybe, I could [in English] ‘stand on my head’ ?”!! (Literally, he was talking about doing a handstand!) That more than anything got my attention, that last suggestion sparked my interest – say what?? That tall burly man, with his (admittedly not very big) beer belly, would try such a thing, could still be able to do a handstand? (laughing) Instantly my face was covered in smiles: “That last one, okay, [in English] ‘go stand on your head!!’”

“I didn’t really expect you to choose that one,” he said; “I haven’t tried that in years!” But, being a Real Man who absolutely always keeps his word, he made several attempts, and with great difficulty he forced that  gigantic body to perform a handstand in the corner. I was really worried that he might break his neck, as when he was upside down his head looked so tiny!

As his face turned bright red, I was already paralyzed with laughter,  falling to the floor. My silly husband really is too, too, too adorable. After he stopped, very pleased with his own performance, he said, “Oh, well, at least I made you laugh; so that was a win. Get to sleep soon, okay, dear? Good night!”

I thank God for giving him such astonishing powers of endurance. His work, so many children, so much pressure – I often just have to admire how God creates people who have so much adaptability. In the midst of such a life, under such heavy burdens, he still sings little songs all day long, tells jokes, finds all kinds of ways to serve other people and make them happy. Here’s a vote of respect to you, my silly husband! – not because you always make me laugh, but because you help me see the goodness of God!

——–

(grinning) Doesn’t seem like I have to do very much to make my wife happy…just stand on my head in the bedroom corner every now and then. What a demanding woman…