Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Dog Dmitri


We have a dog, a mongrel to be precise.

To me at least he is the Platonic ideal of Dog: medium-sized (neither freakishly large nor rattily small), a toasty golden-brown colour with black points and a wide paint-stroke of sable running down his back, pointy ears and upright tail, and a terribly expressive set of eyebrows. A millennia of selective breeding remade the wolf or fox or whatever his ancestors were into this short, wagging creature who just so happens to be completely dependent upon the human race for survival. 

Appearances can be deceiving. Apart from his middling size, he looks like the kind of dog that springs out from behind a tree to chase your bicycle down a dirt path, snarling. His great-great-great-grandmother was probably a common village stray and all his granddaddies must have been deadbeat police German Shepherds, knocking up wild bitches every generation or so. There used to be feral dogs like him living in the field next to our school when I was a little girl. We used to inch closer and closer to taunt them, and then run back to the safety of the canteen, until one day my classmate Josephine got her shoe and sock pulled off by an especially fast mutt. The next day pest control came and shot them all.

Anyway. All we know of our dog is that he appeared out of nowhere in an industrial part of Tuas, where there was already a pack of strays ruling the factories. He was an undersized, flea-ridden puppy, and someone who fed the dogs from time to time noticed that the other dogs were attacking him and preventing him from eating. Close to death, he was picked up by a local animal activist group and taken to a shelter in Pasir Ris, where he was cleaned up and readied for adoption. Because of his small build, he was deemed suitable for HDB dwellers like myself. 

We called him Dmitri because it suited his initial melancholy demeanor, and because I had just finished watching Project Runway's season finale, which a Belarussian immigrant named Dmitri won. I liked that idea, the outsider steadily working his way to the top, winning critical acclaim despite being a stranger in a strange land. Our Dmitri clearly hadn't found favour with his own kind, but humans would love him and care for him for the rest of his life.

He put on weight steadily and apart from a few mishaps - like eating Christmas ornaments right off the tree - has behaved himself admirably. He still doesn't love other dogs, apart from our neighbour Ember, a former forest stray who looks exactly like a black fox. When we run into other dogs at night as their owners gather at the estate's pavilion area, Dmitri usually sniffs round a few times and then decides he's had enough. He's a solitary dog, happy with his humans and his toys.

We tend to humanise our pets beyond reason, I know. But his nonchalance, his standoffish behaviour makes him especially endearing to me. He is affectionate towards people - placing a paw on your knee, headbutting your hip, sniffing your face and slumping against you on the sofa - but not to other dogs whom he alternately ignores or attempts to dominate (ie. humping). He's a much happier dog since he arrived, but his indifference towards other dogs hasn't changed in the least. 

Naturally my not-so-inner narcissist believes the dog is just like me. I don't like most people, either. Ever since I was a kid, I've had trouble liking other people. My best friend Amanda often says that someone is "so nice". I rarely agree, and anyway, since when did "nice" become enough? I like reading, and I'd be lying if I said I never had the urge to discuss a really good book with a like-minded person, but then I've never met any literary types whom I felt a connection with. Mostly I think they're assholes, and I wouldn't be surprised if they feel the same way about me. 

Maybe I have unreasonably high standards when it comes to other people, and to life in general. And again, in this I see a parallel with Dmitri the dog, who right from the start was on the lookout for the finer things: a softer surface, a tastier kibble, a fuzzier teddy bear to rip open. We tried to get him to stop jumping up on the sofa, but it was impossible - he knew it was more comfortable than his dog bed, so why the hell shouldn't he get to sleep on the sofa? We gave in and bought a throw to soak up the inevitable dog hair. In contrast, his friend Ember - who sleeps on the floor, on a towel - never tried once to climb our sofa, despite ample opportunity when we dog-sat her.

Our sofa is covered in fabric, which may account for Dmitri's love affair with it. He is a connoisseur of fabrics: the carpet, the sofa, the assorted floorcloths and rugs - he has rubbed his face ecstatically into each of them, grunting in a disturbingly sexual manner. The strength of his affection for anything soft and made of cloth is unusual, even among dogs. Then there are his table manners: for a bullied stray, he has zero sense of urgency when he eats. He picks daintily at a morsel of chicken breast or a dry kibble, takes his time to nose around for the nicest bits, pauses to take a long drink of water. You can see why he was malnourished during his stint as a stray: the other dogs would have gulped everything else down by the time princess Dmitri figured out exactly which rotting chicken giblet he was going to nibble on first. 

I love that about him, his refusal - even in the face of possible starvation - to give in and change his eating habits. He is too much himself to compromise and be a survivor. So it's probably a good thing he got picked up by animal rescuers, because he would be a rotting pile of carrion by now if they had left him in Tuas. Sometimes when I think about his likely fate, I have to get up and hug him, even though I know dogs don't understand how close they were to dying unknown and unloved. 

We are so much better off than dogs, who are helpless in the hands of a higher power when it comes to finding homes that suit their temperaments. If Dmitri had arrived in any other household - one that was intolerant of his anxiety-ridden diarrhea, one that wanted him to be less of a coward, more of an extrovert, less picky with his food - he would not have been as comfortable, or even as happy. That's the truth. But we humans have the ability to seek out others like us, to come together and form our own packs of like-minded animals. Maybe one day I'll meet more people whom I like, but then again, I'm perfectly happy hanging out on the sofa with Dmitri, scratching his kibble-filled belly.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How to Travel Like An Asshole

Something about the last entry's maudlin drippiness really annoys me, so I'm reviving this blog in order to push it further down into the past. (I stand by the sentiments expressed - just not like, all the time.)

I recently came across a published article I wrote about my trip to the UK and Paris last year, and was embarrassed to find out how bitchy and privileged it sounded. I wrote it at 2 a.m., fact-checked it right afterwards and sent it in to my editor. I didn't really get a chance to think about things like "tone" and "not coming off like a pretentious asshole". (Obviously, I've never learnt my lesson about not doing things at the last minute.)

But the truth of the matter is that although I live in public housing and don't have a car, I really, really like travelling in style. When I'm researching a trip online, nothing makes my eyes light up like "100% organic Egyptian cotton bedlinen", "Michelin-starred", "private plunge pool"... you get the drift. I still can't afford to fly first class or even business class, but I'm always ready to spend on things like hotels and fine dining. Whether it's Edinburgh or Bangkok, I want curated in-room playlists and designer toiletries (no hotel-branded shampoo, please).

It's not something I reveal to people around me, unless I'm close to them. At work I dress modestly and remind my students to write on both sides of the paper, in order to save the environment and the cost of purchasing yet more foolscap. I keep an eye out for store specials when shopping for groceries. I try not to take cabs unless necessary. You wouldn't imagine that I was the same airhead who picked The Zetter based on its mood lighting, borehole water and vintage Penguin paperbacks (the shallow part of me was very taken by the coolness of it all).

In the spirit of total honesty, I also pack like an asshole. I plan every day's outfits right down to accessories, and I write everything out in a list to bring with me. I take a great deal of comfort and pleasure knowing that I'm dressed appropriately - Antik Batik tunic for Bali, Aubin & Wills cardigan for London, Equipment shirt-dress for Paris. I travel light compared to most people, but my suitcase is never short on eye-rolling pretension.

The inevitable question: why do I do it? I can only take vacations rarely, partly because my way of travelling is obviously not cheap, and I don't believe in going into debt. Sometimes the things I choose to do on vacation turn out to be a heartbreaking waste of time and money (I remember a certain restaurant in San Francisco that served radishes three ways on edible 'soil' and resembled a hipster livestock barn - definitely not worth scuttling through the Tenderloin for).

What I love about transforming temporarily while abroad is the transformation itself. I love that I can inhabit a different side of myself - embrace my inner asshole, if you prefer. And then I can go home and be my everyday self again. It's the fluidity of the change that reassures me. If a simple tuition teacher in a suburban community centre can savour Heston Blumenthal's meat fruit at the 9th best restaurant in the world, then I can tell my students with a mostly clear conscience that life can be good to them, that they will succeed and see the world. All they have to do is work for it, and believe in it. The dream is real.

(Mother Teresa reasoning aside, it really is just a shitload of fun as well. Try it and see.)

I once interviewed a music teacher at a neighbourhood school. She had studied in London and travelled Europe, of course, visiting all the cities of classical composers - Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, etc. "I tell my students about those places," she said earnestly. "My students, especially, need to hear things like that." Then she blushed, no doubt realising how condescending she sounded.

But I understood exactly what she meant - perhaps a little too much so.