Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fascination With Screen Spooks

While not an ardent movie fan, I cannot resist spine-chillers, especially those dealing with ghostly apparitions, hauntings, demonic possessions and such.

Likewise, I only watch similarly-themed programmes on Astro, namely 'Ghost Hunter', 'Ghost Whisperer' and 'Hauntings', and the occasional spooky tales on HBO or Star Movies.

This is, of course, apart from my perennial favourites National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and AFC (Asian Food Channel).

Pak Abu and the kids can't understand why I like to scare myself silly. It is pathetic, I know, especially when I watch these eerie tales with a cushion at hand, ready to cover my face at the slightest creak or tweak.

I have been known to 'mute' the audio when the going gets too tough. My logic is that a silent scream is a better bet than turning myself away from the screen.

I honestly can't explain my fascination with the morbid. Guess here's one ideal candidate for psychoanalysis, considering that I also prefer true-life crime stories over other genres.

I love autobiographies but won't touch romance with a ten-foot pole. Humour I don't mind but fiction isn't my cup of tea at all, although I do pick a title or two occasionally, based on recommendations, book reviews and the bestsellers' list.

Somehow I find real-life murder mysteries very engrossing, especially because there is always a closure to each story. At the end of it all, I like happy endings.

Going to the cinemas is not an option because my movements would be restricted to my seat, and I prefer to stand up and walk away when I cannot stomach any particular scene.

In 1987 I went to a cinema in Petaling Jaya at the invitation of a colleague to watch 'Ruthless People", a comedy starring Bette Midler and Danny De Vito.

It took me 14 years before I stepped into a cinema again. In 2001 Pak Abu and I went to the cineplex in KLCC to watch 'Pearl Harbour'.

The most memorable moments of the movie were the ones when Pak Abu snored loudly (and had to be forcibly awakened) while the bombs were falling on Pearl Harbour.

If you did catch the movie, you would have known how noisy and lengthy the bombing scene was. How Pak Abu managed to sleep through it all still beats the hell out of me.

To my eternal delight, cinemas today are no longer cramped, there are less seats in each auditorium, and the seats are nicer and definitely more spacious and comfortable.

You can stretch your legs without kicking the butts of the person sitting in front. I was also surprised to note people didn't seem to eat kuaci (melon seeds) anymore in cinemas!

Anyway, for the last couple of nights Pak Abu and I have been getting cosy watching eerie tales 'The Reaping' and 'The Messengers'.

We have quite a few more to plough through before he returns the entire bunch of DVDs to his golfing buddy Amin.

Quiet and reserved in public but very much alive in Pak Abu's company, Amin seems to spend his days golfing and nights watching DVDs, considering the ultra-huge collection that he has.

Please excuse me, for I have another spooky tale to chill my blood with before I hit the pillow....

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Yesterday Once More

Left: Misi (nurse) Sabariah, our Wan Su (youngest aunt), circa 1962

Yesterday the past came a-calling, crowding my thoughts with events of long ago when life was uncomplicated and love was abundant. And I have En Mohd Som to thank for it.

It was his jottings in response to my piece Rumpus of the Rump (Thursday, July 24, 2008) that set the motion for my reflections of a unique lifestyle long gone.

If my memory serves me well, En Mohd Som arrived in Bukit Besi with all the right credentials; good education, young, single and quite a looker (and obviously very very eligible). It was thus no surprise that his arrival set the hearts of some young maidens of remote Bukit Besi aflutter.

[Bukit Besi was a mining town in the middle of nowhere in Terengganu, with no access road and reachable only by air and keretapi lipang, a wagon train carrying ore from the mine to the seaside town of Dungun, where they were loaded onto barges to be taken to Japanese ships anchored far out at sea].

The fact that En Mohd Som (Matsom, as my dad called him) remembers comely nurses Aminah and Mimi is further testimony of where his eyes frequently strayed.

Unfortunately enough, at eight years old, my heart was a tad too young to be smitten. Otherwise I would probably be among those paying homage to his shadow too..he he he.

He and my stepfather Zainal became fast friends. They played tennis together and he used to drop by our home on many occasions.

In a place where the orang putih (whites) reigned supreme, they were among the handful of locals who were members of that exclusive Bukit Club, with its swimming pool, billiard room, a well-stocked bar, weekly movie shows, frequent dances and parties.

We lived a life somewhat cocooned and removed from the ordinary. Our shopping was done at The Store, an establishment more at home in Tennyside than Terengganu, with its cold room of cuts and its array of British-only products.

Bapak (Father) was so fond of buying us Smarties as special treats that each time I see Smarties in the shops today, I would be reminded of my Bukit Besi days.

Thursday nights saw us at the Bukit Club, clustering in from of a big screen with the rest of the orang putih kids waiting for the movie to begin.

Since Friday was (and still is) a day of rest in Terengganu, Thursday evening was when the fun began for the expatriate crowd. Those were the heady days.

Everybody was in Bukit Besi to work, make money and gain experience . The expats came and went in quick succession. But the latter groups weren't as accomodating and eventually the arrivals trickled to a stop.

I left in 1967 to enter secondary school in Dungun, eventually moving on to a boarding school. And that was the end of my association with Bukit Besi.

The mine closed down not long after, and my parents moved on to Johore where Bapak worked in a bauxite mining company for a decade, before returning to Dungun for good.

He bought a neat little bungalow by the sea where he lived with mum until he died peacefully in his sleep in the late 1990s.

To En Mohd Som, thank you for leading the way down memory lane. It was a trip worth its weight in the best grade of iron ore!

[PS: Mum died of renal failure on May 31, 2008, hardly two months ago, in Dungun. But we kids of the Zainal & Norzaliha clan would love to meet up with you one of these days. I am reachable at].

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Funeral and A Wedding

First of all, my apologies for being away from blogsphere for five days. There were too many things to attend to lately that writing was relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder.

To make matters worse, by the time the day was done, my mind switched off automatically. Creativity too took a well-deserved vacation, rendering me staring helplessly at a blank screen for hours at a time.

There was another morning burial at the Kg Sungai Pencala Muslim Cemetery last Saturday, making it the second burial in as many weeks. Al-Fatihah.

Over the weekend I indulged in a favourite pastime - shopping for books. Got meself two deeply disturbing true-crime stories interesting enough to keep me glued to the pages for over two days.

Without A Trace by Marion Collins details the true story of how Robert Durst, a powerful New York real estate millionaire, degenerated from wealth and affluence to a cross-dressing fugitive suspected of murdering and dismembering an elderly neighbour.

The False Prophet, a chilling account by Claire Booth, had me pondering about the fragility of the human mind long after I finished the book.

It revolves around a young Mormon missionary named Taylor Helzer, whose twisted devotion to his church ended with a series of gruesome murders in the name of God.

Last night, we had Ann-Marie and Thong for dinner. I prepared my Hari Raya dishes - nasi minyak (ghee rice), ayam kuzi (a chicken dish) and rendang daging (dried beef curry) - which had the kids drooling from miles away.

Ann-Marie who is French, is Pak Abu's friend from his university days in London. Her husband, the soft-spoken Thong, is Malaysian by birth.

They are in town for the bi-annual visit to Thong's mother and family members in Kuala Lumpur. They would be leaving for their home in Strasbourg, France on Wednesday after a month-long holiday in Asia.

Daughter Awwa dropped by after work while Joe followed suit with girlfriend Lily soon after. Ann, who had to work late, requested that Joe 'tapau' (take away) some of the food home. I, of course, gladly obliged.

After dinner we watched a recording of Maude's wedding to Ahmed, a Moroccan Muslim. There were a lot of singing, ululating and dancing. Maude is the only child of Ann-Marie and Thong.

Despite her French-Chinese heritage, the sweet-faced and pint-sized Maude looks so endearingly Melayu. We wish the handsome couple a lifetime of bliss.

Thong said they would be going to Morocco mid-August to attend a wedding celebration hosted by Ahmed's family.

He also mentioned that they were considering retiring here under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. I think that would be swell.

Sometimes I think we are so unappreciative of what we have. It takes someone totally removed from our sphere to tell us how lucky we are, for the things that we take for granted.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rumpus of The Rump

[Kama at six]

No one likes a prolonged hospital stay, I'm sure. Who could possibly enjoy being confined to a hospital bed and fed bland food for an extended period of time? It's like being punished for falling sick.

All my life, I was hospitalised for a long period only twice; the first time as a six year-old and the second at the age of 31 for a C-section due to breech pregnancy.

While having a C-section is nothing to shout about, my hospitalisation due to severe burns as a preschooler was traumatic to both my grandparents and I.

The tale of how my derriere got scorched would have been hilarious had it not been such a painful experience.

It is an episode that has gone down the annals of our family history, to be retold time and again for its 'mirth value'.

That my posterior has been recorded for posterity is truly not a tribute I would have chosen to remember me by. Alas, this behind has made it to the front and there's no turning back!

The year was 1960 when I ended up for one month in Bukit Besi Hospital, lying on my belly with a severely burnt rump.

Young as I was, I could remember every little detail of the events leading to that fateful moment.

It was a sultry afternoon and I was on my skipping ropes, skipping in the front yard of our kampung house with a cat on my tail. The cat jumped as I skipped, trying to paw at my feet.

The house was a wooden structure on stilts, with eight rungs of stairs. My eldest brother Yusof once accidentally rolled down those very steps, headlong into a huge basket of roti (bread) placed there moments before by our local Bengali breadman.

Those days breadmen carried their bread for sale in big wicker baskets and walked from house to house carrying those baskets on their shoulders.

Our Bengali breadman had just placed his roti-laden basket at the foot of the stairs when Yusof, then three, missed a footing and came tumbling down.

Fortunately, his fall was broken by loaves of soft bread, much to the chagrin of the poor breadman whose supply for the day was completely ruined.

Back to my celebrated rump tale; Tired from all the skipping, I ran up the stairs with the cat in hot pursuit, and plonked myself down on what I thought was a chair set against the wall.

Suddenly there was this sizzling sound and the smell of burning flesh. I screamed and passed out. The next thing I remember was lying on my stomach in a hospital cot. The pain was excruciating.

I had accidentally sat on a hot oven; that old-fashioned round metal oven with a tiny glass window, widely used for baking in the '50s and '60s.

Grandma was baking a cake and had not counted on me to come running into the house and sitting on her oven when there were so many chairs around.

I was told that my stepfather, who was home at the time, grabbed hold of me and lifted me off the oven, leaving my flesh sizzling on the cover.

He then cradled me face down and ran all the way to the hospital which was a short distance away. My aunt Wan Su, a nurse at the same hospital, took over the task of caring for me.

I remember my grandma sleeping in a bed next to the cot most nights, going home only in the morning to do her daily chores before returning again at night to keep me company.

Much later my grandmother would tell me of soft little hands caressing her face while she slept, and of Wan Su telling grandma about a little girl who died in the cot that I occupied.

Wan Su would also tell of the phantom of a young Indian woman with long flowing hair and clad in a white sari, seen most nights running past the paediatric-cum-maternity wing where I was, before disappearing into thin air.

In any case, my one-month hospital stay was a memorable one. The 'mems' (wives of Bukit Besi's expatriate staff) came in droves, bringing presents.

One particular gift I recall with such clarity was a beautifully handmade Raggedy Ann doll clad in a gingham dress.

The hair, pleated down the middle, was made of yellow wool, while the rest of cotton and calico stuffed with kapok. The doll was big, almost half my size.

The 'mems' were friends and acquaintances of both my parents and grandparents, especially grandma who was an active member of that venerable British institution, the WI (Women's Institute).

I have precious little to show for that terrible experience. The pain is long gone and the scars have faded over time.

What remains is the memory of kindness and compassion shown by a motley group of strange white women to a scared and suffering little girl.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Twist To Old Tales

Many years ago a close friend playfully poked fun at me by saying I was old before my time because of my penchant for kata orang tua-tua (old wives' tales).

She said I always had a story to tell in relation to whatever was happening and that I was forever dipping into my grandmother's 'treasure chest' of quotations and sayings to prove a point.

Honest to goodness, I had never quite seen myself from that perspective. I guess it must have been galling for some people to hear me dispensing with age-old advice to suit all occasions.

But I can't think otherwise. I grew up with a convenient litany of do's and don'ts from one of the world's most persuasive grandmothers. So I am merely following tradition.

Grandma said never to leave your bed empty for three consecutive days for it invites unseen 'guests' to frolic on it.

If you have to, flip the mattress up against the wall or cover it with a sheet. Don't forget to strip the bed bare upon your return and put new sheets on, so you won't be sleeping on any bekas (stains).

In the kitchen, never leave food exposed overnight. Cover everything to avoid it being peed or spit on (honest!) by your ill-mannered "housemates".

Cover your head when doing "a big one" because these unseen pranksters sometimes take immeasurable fun in dumping the crap on you, literally!

Since I liked to sing (still do), grandma cautioned me against doing it in the kitchen for fear of me marrying an old man.

What the lady didn't know (she never did, thank God) was that I was hoping to marry an old man! (Just for the record, I changed my mind somewhat when I saw more of the world).

I can hear some of you twittering (in nervous laughter?) as you read these seemingly silly advice.

In all likelihood, my kids would roll their eyes heavenwards with a "there she goes again" look of dismay, while Pak Abu would be more to the point with just one word - mengarutlah! (what utter rubbish!)

Now let's put a modern twist to these things. Of course you shouldn't leave your bed uncovered. You don't want to share a bed with all kinds of airborne particles, do you?

And uncovered food? Well, anyone with half a brain can tell you that germs and bacteria thrive in exposed food.

As for covering your head while crapping, I think this refers to the old days when outhouses were the norm. God knows what lurked on the roof of an outhouse.

If you are doing it in the pleasant environs of your bathroom with its flushed toilet, hot-and-cold water and tastefully arranged floor and wall tiles, the need to sit on the 'throne' with a towel on your head seems comical at best.

And singing in the kitchen could be distracting. In days of yore when cooking was done over open fire using firewood, you had to pay full attention to the tasks at hand, or you might end up burning the house down!

Whatever the case, I will continue with my tales, old wives notwithstanding, because it makes one's life richer for the knowledge, ridiculous as they may be.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tormenting A'e

My kitchen is doing a roaring business these past couple of days; I think the kids miss home-cooking, no matter how badly mum cooks.

We had rice again tonight, the second time in three days. That's a lot of rice, considering the family usually opts for non-rice meals for dinner.

Awwa's friend Ismail (A'e) called during dinner. He sounded breathless. He told Awwa that he and friend Vinod had just taken flight from their office in a hurry.

A'e directs the production of TV commercials and his office is a two-storey converted bungalow in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

He is a pretty level-headed guy not easily given to excitement, so it was a surprise to know he took to his heels this time around.

It wasn't the first time A'e was tormented by 'something' while alone in the office, but he had managed to keep a calm exterior all these while.

But today it happened in the presence of Vinod and they decided it wasn't worth the effort to hang around waiting to be scared out of their wits for the second time.

Apparently, A'e was doing his work upstairs when he saw the heavy drapes being parted by unseen hands. Both men felt the pricking on their napes and decided to leave.

The last time it happened, he was alone in the office and had fallen asleep at his desk when a loud cackle woke him up in the wee hours of the morning.

It must be some mischievous being playing a prank on him. Whatever the case, I don't think he should be alone in that office. Don't tempt fate. Also, there's safety in numbers.

Let me conclude with an amusing tale. For many a night since we moved here, the three of us - Pak Abu, Naj and myself - heard furniture being dragged around and heavy footsteps coming from the unit immediately above us.

I mean, who in his right mind would move his furniture past midnight every night? Not only that, we also heard the occasional drilling sounds (using an electric driller no less), at 3 am!

One night Naj gave me a sidelong look and said, "Are you sure there are people living up there Ma?" I got the chills just hearing that.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I took a peek at the upstairs unit and saw laundry being aired to dry.

And this morning someone was having a loud phone conversation from the balcony of the unit above.

So there are real people living up there but what were they thinking, drilling holes at 3 am? Watch this space. It may get interesting...

Pak Abu's Golf Breather

[ Left: Beatrix Potter's original Peter Rabbit illustration]

My elder daughter Ann is on sick leave today. Her sinus has acted up again, she is having a slight fever and her voice sounded thick over the phone.

But I managed to persuade her to come around for a late lunch. She turned up about three, bearing a surprise present too.

A month back she had asked me for my list of "To Buy" books and I had given her a couple of titles by Bill Bryson not available the last time I visited the bookstores here in Damansara.

I had read previews of both and had set my mind on buying them; Bill Bryson's African Diary, about Bryson's travels in Kenya, and Made In America, his take on the evolution of the English Language in the United States.

What I didn't know was that Ann took the trouble to place an order for the two titles with Borders Bookstore at The Curve.

The books arrived last week and she collected them over the weekend. Thanks Ann, that was very thoughtful of you.

Wonder of wonders, Pak Abu is taking a one-day break from golf today. He had been golfing daily for 15 days straight, which I thought was stretching it a bit.

Just the other day, while running an errand in Kelana Jaya, he took a tumble on an uneven pavement. Luckily he wasn't injured.

He really had me worried then. I thought his knees had given way due to fatigue; fortunately it was just a miscalculated step.

We rarely watch movies together, be it at home or in the cinema, simply because I am not hot on films (unless they are eerie stuffs like ghost stories and such).

But yesterday I cosied up to the man a bit (just to keep him company, he he), watching Miss Potter, about that famous author and illustrator of children's books, Beatrix Potter.

The movie was filmed against the backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful Lake District in northwest England, while Beatrix Potter was played to near-perfection by that talented actress, Rene Zellweger.

I think boredom really set in for Pak Abu today. He watched The Other Boleyn Girl and Pride and Prejudice in quick succession.

I can't wait for Tuesday to arrive - he's better off on the golf course for sure.

Back In The Karaoke Groove

It's past midnight and Pak Abu and I had just returned from our karaoke session at the Royal Lake Club (RLC), our first in eight weeks.

It was great meeting those diehard karaoke 'kakis' again after a two-month absence. Many presumed we went for an extended holiday abroad.

Little did they know I was wallowing in self-pity at home; wheezing, sneezing and coughing, croaking my way in a world devoid of scent and aroma, and getting on everybody's nerves.

Poor Pak Abu. I know he missed his weekly dose of Broery and Ronald Keating and Eagle, among others. And singing alone at home is so lame, compared to belting 'em out with friends.

The karaoke session at the RLC is held weekly, every Sunday from 7pm to past midnight. This is because the club doesn't have a dedicated karaoke lounge; instead it utilises one part of the bar where professional singers usually perform on weekdays.

Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club (KLGCC), however, has its own karaoke lounge with a reasonably good (but sometimes cranky) sound system. The lounge opens daily from 5pm to midnight, except Sundays.

Comparatively, RLC is more systematic in its approach. In RLC, if you want to sing, you write down your name and membership number on a white board provided.

Then you jot down your choice of song on a slip of paper and pass it to the DJ. Yep, they have a dedicated DJ even though the session is only once a week. You may bring your own CDs if you so desire.

The system is fair and orderly. The DJ announces your name when your turn arrives and you step to the front to sing. You are allowed one song per turn.

In KLGCC, you write down your choice of songs on a slip of paper and pass it to one of the two waitressing staff on duty.

Unfortunately enough, the duo have to do everything - taking orders, delivering food, making and pouring drinks, serving members and guests, clearing up, attending to the till, taking in song requests, keying in song codes, managing the karaoke console, delivering microphones to patrons, not to mention coping with alcohol-intoxicated customers.

Small wonder they always manage to get the patrons' singing turns screwed up, much to the latter's chagrin. We too had been at the receiving end a couple of times.

The system, haphazard at best and unreliable at worst, depends on the memory of the staff to remember whose turn comes first.

It works well when there are less than six patrons to attend to, but goes haywire when a large group of people descends upon the place.

This usually happens when there are private functions like dinners and parties at the club, where guests adjourn to the karaoke lounge for 'happy hours'.

Because KLGCC is not strictly a members' club, there are plenty of walk-ins patronising the place. In fact, many regular patrons of the karaoke lounge are non-members.

In KLGCC, each person or group is allowed two songs per turn and this again gives rise to a lot of complaints by some patrons.

Imagine, a single patron gets to sing two songs, a couple also gets the same, so is a group of eight people. Trouble usually begins when a group (usually those with one drink too many) demands more songs.

Why the management does not consider placing a fair and workable system as well as a specific personnel to oversee the karaoke function, beg answering.

Whether a patron is a member or a guest is beside the point. It IS a karaoke lounge after all and this complaint is nothing new. Is anyone listening?

To me, karaoke is a good way to let off steam, to destress and relax. Whether you sing off-key or you croon like a pro make no difference; you get a hearty applause all the same!

I am glad my 'vice' is limited to just club karaoke with a bunch of like-minded old foggies. We may never win any singing competition, but heck, we certainly know how to enjoy ourselves!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Morning Burial

It has become a habit of mine since moving to this place, to observe the Kampung Sungai Pencala Muslim Cemetery down below for a minute or two as I slide open the balcony doors each morning.

Somehow, it makes a good start to the day in that it keeps death within view, thus helping me put my life in its proper perspective. Peaceful and serene, the place does have a calming effect on me.

This morning, however, there was a hive of activity at the northern end of the cemetery. Upon closer inspection, I saw a group of men digging a grave.

Innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raji'un (we are God's own and to Him we return). Someone had just passed away.

I went about doing my housework but returned to observe the goings-on every now and then. They had put up a huge umbrella and unrolled some mats by then.

As I sat there by the window, I thought of my mother, who died of renal failure just two months ago, and of my beloved grandma whose death in 1980 due to cancer had left such a big void in my young life.

I thought of the two people I would have loved to care for and cherish - Pak Abu's parents and the in-laws I regretfully would never know.

Lost in thought, I didn't realise the procession bearing the jenazah (body) slowly making its way to the gravesite. It was then just past ten. There were some 50 people accompanying the body.

I couldn't see the body being lowered into the grave because of the wall of people surrounding it, neither could i hear the talqin (prayers for the dead) being read because it was quite a distance away.

Nonetheless, I put my hands together until the prayer ended. The burial ceremony was completed by 10.45 am and the last few people, presumably the dead's family members, left at about 11 am.

Semoga Allah mencucuri rahmat keatasnya dan meletakkan rohnya dikalangan orang-orang yang beriman (May God bless him/her and place his/her soul in the company of the faithful). Al-Fatihah.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Maid's Tragedy

How time flies. Six more weeks, and fasting begins. This year, the Muslim months of Ramadan and Syawal parallel the Gregorian calendar.

This means Muslims shall begin fasting on the first of September and celebrate Aidil Fitri on the first of October.

On a personal note, this year marks my first Hari Raya without Mum. I don't really want to dwell on it though, it can be depressing.

I take consolation in the fact that I still have people whom I love dearly around me; there's Pak Abu and the kids for example, and my siblings and their respective families.

I am bringing on the Hari Raya topic for a reason; it was on a Hari Raya morning 10 years ago that a neighbour's maid hanged herself, all because of her employer's callousness.

I don't understand how some employers can be so mean to their maids. You hire them to clean up your mess, look after your house, care for your children, cook the food that you eat. Yet you use harsh words on them and belittle them.

Some employers are even worse. They physically abuse their maids for every mistake made and deprive them of whatever little comfort there is. How these people live with their conscience I don't know (perhaps they don't have any).

To digress a bit: I grew up sharing a bed with Hamidah, the daughter of our family maid. She was my classmate and also my best friend.

My grandma, bless her soul, 'adopted' Midah when she entered secondary school by inviting her to stay with us to keep me company.

We did things together and moved in the same group. We bared our souls to each other and shared teenage secrets - my crush on a teacher, her crush on a senior. I never saw her as anything but a sister.

We parted company when I was accepted into a boarding school but remain in touch until today. She is now a teacher in Perlis, happily married with children.

Her mother Selema (who died recently) was one of the kindest women I had ever known. She cooked and cleaned for us for almost two decades. Grandma treated everyone like family.

Back to the story of the maid who committed suicide - I remember that day clearly. We were staying in USJ4, Subang Jaya, in a house facing a popular playground.

I liked standing by the door in the evenings, taking long drags from my cigarettes (I was still smoking then) while watching the neighbourhood children playing under the supervision of their parents or maids.

There were a few squat but shady trees dotting the playground and some daring kids liked to climb those trees just for the fun of jumping back down.

That Raya morning I woke up early as usual and went about my housework. It was around seven-thirty when I realised there was a commotion at one end of the playground.

I went over and was told someone saw a woman hanging from a tree at the corner and called the cops. The body had just been removed and taken to the hospital.

We found out later that the body was that of an Indonesian maid working for a family living nearby.

Apparently, she told her employer she wanted to go and pray at the nearby mosque. They found her telekung (prayer garment) at the base of the tree.

The story behind the suicide came out later. It was so heart-rending that I still feel the sorrow while writing this.

Apparently, she found out her husband had taken a second wife while she was away. She broke down completely upon hearing this.

After all, she traveled far from home to find money to support the family, only to be so betrayed.

As it was near Hari Raya, she asked her employer for permission to go home to work things out with her husband.

At first the employer agreed, so she made all the necessary preparations to return home. Then the employer backtracked and refused to let her go. I was told she begged to go, but to no avail.

She became very quiet after that and went about doing her work silently. Perhaps she was in the pits of depression and had lost all hope, feeling helpless with no one to turn to.

All we knew was that come Raya morning she asked for permission to do her subuh (dawn) prayers at the mosque, and she did.

On her way back, she climbed up the tree and hanged herself. It was so tragic I still can't shake it off after all these years....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Kitchen Reopens For Business

Finally, after many months of eating out, running out of places to go in the process, my kitchen is finally berasap (back in use) again.

Funny how it got to be that way. It all started when the kids moved out in November last year, taking along with them practically all my good kitchenware, including my precious lesung tumbuk (mortar and pestle).

Left with nothing to cook with, and because cooking for two is truly not worth the time and effort, the kitchen remained dormant for months.

It was only this morning that I went shopping for grocery in earnest since we moved into this new place two weeks ago.

And tonight the kids dropped by for mum's first properly cooked meal in months - spaghetti bolognese - the simplest of all dishes since it didn't take too much effort to prepare.

Ann even brought back a colleague from the office, fellow journalist Gabey, who had the dubious distinction of getting stranded with Ann on the New Klang Valley Ecpressway last week when Ann's car broke down at 3 am.

According to Ann, Gabey is an avid reader. I could sense that, by the way her eyes swept my mini library and the comments she made on my choice of books. Ah, there's a kindred spirit.

Pak Abu has been anchored to the comfortable sofa like a beached whale for hours now. Barely moving, the spaghetti meal must have done him in.

He may be dozing off, drifting in and out of sleep, but rest assured his grip on the remote control has not slackened one bit. I think he's afraid I may switch off the TV.

I made a conscious choice NOT to the watch 'The Debate' on TV9, purely because the oratory skills of one of the speakers no longer impress me.

There is so much I can take; the fellow has outlived my welcome. I'd rather see less talk and more substance.

Blast From The Past

Nothing beats living in a self-contained township where everything you need is within reach, and Taman Tun Dr Ismail, with its low-density population and convenience at every turn, is a perfect example of this.

Being averse to chaotic traffic, Pak Abu and I are none too keen to venture out of our comfort zone, not when One Utama is within walking distance while The Curve, Ikea, Tesco and Ikano are hardly three-minute drive away.

But yesterday (Monday July 14) was an exception to the rule. We were in the heart of the city twice in a day, once in the morning and later in the evening, and both just as eventful.

Approaching Jalan Parliament from Bukit Damansara at about 11 am, we suddenly realised the heavy presence of the police and Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) personnel, and that all access to the Parliament area was closed.

That put us in a quandary because our destination was The Royal Lake Club, gobsmacked in the middle of it all.

Our route thus became frustratingly circuitous, finally approaching the club via the police headquarters of Bukit Aman.

The car was stopped three times by cops wanting to know our destination, but we got there in the end.

By then I vaguely remembered reading in the newspapers about a rally (or was it a march to the Parliament Building?) purportedly planned by the Opposition for some reason or another.

I honestly don't give a hoot if those over-zealous folks want to hold rallies or march to their hearts' content, but please do it away from the city.

Go march in Putrajaya, there's so much open space there. And while you are at it, go jump into one of the big lakes dotting the area. Sheesh...

Darn it, traffic in downtown KL is already choking the lives out of us motorists; why do they have to add to our misery?

Honestly, they can't count on my vote if they insist on getting me all riled up for no acceptable reason. Sufficiently annoyed, we made our way home.

Then Pak Abu got a call from the past; a former university mate from his London days was in town with her husband and had asked us out to dinner.

We met up with Anne-Marie, who is French, and her Malaysian-born husband Thong, in Bukit Bintang and proceeded to dinner at Tarbush, a restaurant serving Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.

They are on a summer break from their home in Strasbourg, France, and are planning to take in Tioman and Langkawi before going home.

Anne-Marie puts me to shame; she and Thong have climbed Mount Kinabalu while I have never even been to Sabah!

It was nice to see Pak Abu in the company of an old friend; they reminisced about mutual friends from their varsity days.

We await their return from their tourist jaunts; Pak Abu did a hardsell of my culinary skills and now I don't have a choice but to live up to it.

I hope to cook something special for them, maybe some of my festival dishes, before they leave for home at the end of July.

Let's just hope I won't embarrass myself; after all, if push comes to shove, there's plenty of kedai (shops) around here to make up for it....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Cautionary Tale of The Unseen

I am not out to frighten anyone. I am merely relating what had been told to me by the very people who had experienced it.

Of course, the choice is yours. You may want to take it a step further or you may just want to laugh it off as one of my many paranoia.

As always, I prefer to err on the side of caution because one of the few things I dislike most in life is being reproached with an "I told you so", (not that it never happened, by the way).

I used to collect things. Those unkind enough would probably say I was a hoarder of junks, which in a way wasn't so far off the mark.

The recent house-moving, however, was a blessing in disguise for it finally saw me casting aside sentimentality in favour of practicality. Truthfully, there was nothing left save for a few cherished items.

Apart from those souvenir plates I mentioned in an earlier blogpiece, there is this pre-Victorian, English-made, blue and white porcelain bowl that I inherited from my late grandmother.

By virtue of my previous work with the Royal Mint, where I got to know a number of people in the worlds of numismetic, philately and objet d'art, I realised there is value attached to this more than a century old bowl, so it's not going anywhere.

One thing for sure, I no longer collect vases (I was once a sucker for ethnic vases), and if you hear what I have to say about some of them, you may reach the same decision as mine.

This story was related to me by the wife of a high-ranking government servant (now retired and is prominent in the private sector), who once owned some of the most beautiful vases I had ever seen.

She travelled the world to find them and paid good money for them. They were not those dainty little receptacles you plonked flowers in and placed on your coffee table.

These were huge vases, some of which you could easily fit a body in. She lined them along the walls of her spacious living area for guests to admire their intricate workmanship.

She said, one night she awoke to the muted sounds of voices in the living room. She described it as 'quarrelsome voices'. Fearing a break-in, she woke up her husband who informed the security guards outside.

While they found no one in the house, the guards realised the voices emanated from some of the vases. Terrified, they called the couple.

The entire collection was discarded the very next day upon the advice of an ustaz who told them they had brought in all kinds of unknown, potentially harmful spirits dwelling in the vases into their home.

Apparently, some of those beautifully carved vases, especially the ones from South America and Indonesia, were once burial jars. How they got to be in the tourist market, only God knows.

My sister Zaridah used to have one of those Swiss-made cuckoo clocks with two swinging chains in her home, the kind where the cuckoo bird pokes its head out and say cuckooo! as the hour strikes.

One day she fell ill and started hallucinating. Somehow, she is one of those susceptible to 'seeing' the unseen. She saw a group of beings in white dancing around a campfire in her bedroom!

An ustaz called in to assist in prayers told her to take a look at the cuckoo clock on the wall. Apparently, there was a whole community of "them" there too, merrily clambering onto the bird and swinging on the chains.

The ustaz said 'they' had been living there for quite a while, probably taken by the carousel effect of the chains. Suffice to say, the clock met an early demise.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On The Road To Recovery (Hopefully)

After more than a month of constant sneezing, wheezing and coughing up truly off-putting mucus and pleghm, coping with excruciating facial pain and losing my sense of smell along the way, I finally found out the reason why.

The ENT specialist at Damansara Specialist Centre whom I saw yesterday morning said I have one of most severe sinus infections he has ever seen, made worse by the nasal defect that I already have.

And to think that it all started with a simple cold. I only have myself to blame for not seeking treatment earlier.

Under normal circumstances, such cold would have cleared up within a week; that was the reason why I didn't pay much attention to it.

What I conveniently forgot was that with an existing nasal anomaly, a simple flu or any sneezing could lead to something a lot worse. Well, that's a painful lesson learnt.

Anyway, I am now on medication; God willing, this will clear up in no time. The good doctor said there should be improvements in a week, at least insofar as excessive mucus is concerned.

Last night, my sister Zaridah and her husband Radzi dropped by for a visit. Idah had just returned from Sarawak after sending her pregnant daughter-in-law back, to be with her family in Kuching for the delivery.

We are planning to travel to Kuching en masse just before Ramadan to welcome Idah's first grandchild into this big bad world.

The clan did it the last time when Zack got married and had to book a quarter of a hotel and rent a tour bus to fit everyone in....

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Shifting Sands

Oh boy, seems like it's back to the city for everyone after Mak's demise. For sure, my sister Zaridah who lives in Kuala Terengganu will be shifting to Kuala Lumpur mid-July.

The move makes sense actually, because 90 per cent of her business is in KL, and she had been travelling up and down almost on a weekly basis for a few years now.

Her only son, Zack, is going to be a father soon and she wants to be closer to her first grandchild. Also, Zack is a pilot and is away a lot, so having Idah around would be helpful to his pretty young wife, Zetty, who is going to be a mother in August.

On my part, I like to see the excitement on Idah's face at her impending grandmotherhood. She is a good six years younger than me and she is already going to be a grandma!

In a way I feel somewhat sympathetic towards Idah. Her only daughter Amy whom she is very close to, is married to a foreigner and lives in the US. I think Amy's departure took its toll on her. She seems lost in thoughts most times.

Idah is the most hardworking among us; she built her unit trust business almost singlehandedly 15 years ago and is now successfully managing a few big portfolios.

I heard from Idah that my immediate sister Zahana (Ani) is also contemplating moving to KL now that Mak is no longer with us.

What more, Ani's two elder married daughters are working and living in Klang Valley while her son is finishing his flying course very soon and would start work, presumably based in KL.

Ani is one of those home and hearth kind totally dedicated to her family. She is well grounded and solidly dependable, the kind you can trust your deepest secret with.

Ani and family relocated to Dungun many years ago when her ex-army pilot husband Mohd Som (Atan), began flying for Malaysian Helicopter Services.

His job was ferrying petroleum crew to and from offshore platforms off Kerteh. He left MHS for a brief stint in Rwanda but has since returned and is now flying for MHS in East Malaysia.

Ani has been talking about moving to KL for years. I hope it will become a reality soon because it means the family will be closer to Atan's ailing mother in Tanjung Malim.

Already deeply entrenched in Klang Valley are my sisters Hanizah (Izah) in Subang Jaya and Zanariah (Ana) in Bukit Jelutong, while brother Yusoff lives in Taman Melawati and another brother, Fauzi, resides in Shah Alam.

Mother-of-two Izah is a trained drug rehabilitation counsellor who is currently enjoying her stint as a lady of leisure. I hope she returns to work soon - too much of a good life isn't good for you, sis!

Ana is the bookish, academic type who lectures business and entrepreneurship in a local university. Married with four children and with an absolute gem for a husband, Ana looks settled with life.

Our two brothers, Yusoff and Fauzi, run their own small enterprises and seem to be doing okay. Both are now grandfathers, with Yusoff leading the pack with 7 cucus (grandchildren).

The only one far away is our youngest sister Liza who lives and works in Minnesota. I have not seen her in years (she last returned for a visit 5 years ago).

As her eldest kakak (sister), I want her to come home and find work here in Malaysia. I know she holds a very senior position and earns big bucks in the US, and that she's uncertain of her career prospects here. But you will never know if you don't even try.

For the rest of us siblings, it makes a lot of sense to regroup. We are not getting any younger, our parents are gone and our children are maturing and leaving home one by one.

Like siblings everywhere, we have had our differences and have bickered about everything under the sun over the years. But at the end of the day, we are brothers and sisters sharing blood ties and that's a good enough reason to stay close together.

That Nasal Pain Again

This morning Pak Abu and I went to Damansara Specialist Centre because I was unable to reach my regular ENT specialist by phone.

I had to see him at whatever cost; something feels so wrong with my health. I have been sneezing, wheezing and coughing unabated, despite medication, for over a month now.

Unfortunately he was in surgery, but we managed to make an appointment for tomorrow. So I will be there again tomorrow morning and I hope to put to rest whatever it is that's plaguing me.

It started as a simple cold and cough soon after my mum's death at the end of May, but by June's end they were still there.

And lately the coughing is worse than ever, bringing up horrible-looking pleghm speckled with blood. What's making it more worrying is that my face is in constant pain, especially the nasal area.

I don't know what to make of this. My sense of smell has been gone for over a month. I smell nothing, not even durian and the strongest of perfumes. Thankfully, I can still taste my food.

Anyway, on the bright side, the cafeteria at Damansara Specialist Centre serves good food at some of the cheapest prices we have ever come cross in a very long time.

We had mixed rice with no less than 4 types of lauk apiece, with a bowl of ikan patin masak asam, and nescafe tarik each, all for RM11. I may not be able to smell a thing, but I know a good bargain when I see one!

Kitchen Confidential

If there is anybody I envy the most in this world, it must be those who can cook and do it for the sheer love of cooking.

They need no prompting to approach the stove. They can whip up a mean spread seemingly without much effort, and still come out with a spotless apron and a big smile on their faces.

Me? All I needed to do was spend one hour in the kitchen and I would emerge drenched in sweat, hair dishevelled, my apron soaking wet and the kitchen looking like a disaster zone.

I always wonder, how could this be? Why am I such a hopeless git in the kitchen? To make matters worse, I would always forget one ingredient or the other.

Watching cooking programmes on TV, especially AFC (Asian Food Channel) on Astro, is a favourite pastime, apart from buying recipe books.

As for trying out those recipes, let's just say I have tried a few with no spectacular success, and plenty of failures fed to the bin. One or two did come out alright.

I admit, I have a love-hate relationship with the kitchen. I can cook the basic stuffs; rice and simple lauk pauk (accompaniments to rice).

I know how to make the various sambals; I can even hazard a kuih (desserts, sweetmeats) or two, my specialty being bubur kacang, but that's about it.

People who knew my family shook their heads pityingly. They were all aware of my late Opah's (grandmother) well-established culinary skills and expertise.

Cik Bah, as she was affectionately known (her name being Puteri Habibah Megat Ibrahim), could cook for 600 people at any one time with relative ease.

She was forever cooking for kenduris (feasts) and her various types of nasi (rice) and lauk pauk especially her rendang tok (beef rendang Perak-style), were to die for. [Note: Pix above courtesy of Kak Liza from Photopages]

On top of that, she also took in orders for cookies, cakes and traditional sweetmeats by the thousands come festival periods.

During my childhood, fasting months were always busy times for me for my job was to pack those cookies into containers (mostly empty Milo or Ovaltine tins) for delivery.

In addition to all those Opah also sewed, both traditional and modern apparel - kurung, kebaya, baju melayu, shirts & blouses, skirts & pants - all kinds of curtains, and kapok matresses and pillows.

The thing is, she didn't need to do it; grandpa earned enough to support us. She did it for the love of doing it. She was one of those people who couldn't keep still, and the money was a welcome bonus.

My late aunt Sabariah (we called her Wan Su, being our youngest aunt) inherited Opah's talent for baking.

Wan Su specialised in those heavily decorated, multi-tiered wedding cakes and cakes for special occasions like birthdays, engagements and hantaran (wedding gift).

While my mum's culinary skills left much to be desired, she still cooked better than some housewives I know. It's me who's the absolute no-hoper between the four of us.

It is heartening to note that my youngest daughter Nawwar has taken to the kitchen. She takes the trouble to learn family favourites from her paternal grandmother and tries them at home.

My former mother-in-law, Puan Sri Halimah, who lives in Petaling Jaya, has a soft spot for Awwa because of this. She would turun padang (get going) just to show Awwa how a dish is prepared.

She even taught Awwa her best-kept secret, ayam kuzi, which is now a must in our family on the mornings of Aidil Fitri and Aidil Adha (Muslim religious festivals).

This chicken dish with thick gravy made of evaporated milk and tomato puree is Arabic in origin and is best eaten with ghee rice.

Puan Sri is an accomplished cook. Her Kedah-style fish curry has no equal. She used to make me sit and watch step-by-step as she prepared the curry, but I was too thick to absorb anything (or perhaps my interest just wasn't there, hehe).

At past 80, I was told she still ventures into the kitchen sometimes, especially when the entire jingbang gather during weekends and such.

In this new place, we have just bought a cooker. I am thinking of cooking for the family this weekend. Don't know yet what the menu's going to be.

All I know is that I miss the kids crowding me in the kitchen, getting into my hair, messing up the sofa, trying to be civil while fighting over that last piece of chicken leg and making noise at the dining table.

I know, I know. I am suffering from that empty nest syndrome...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Screaming Banshee

Sometimes people simply go out of their way to scare the crap out of you, and I don't mean the hoo-haa about displaying graphic images of diseased lungs on cigarette packs.

As you know, my condo unit is in full view of a cemetery, which, truth be told, is no big deal. Then comes my nephew-in-law with his spooky tale.

Shawn, husband to my niece Karina, runs a house-and-office cleaning business. I had invited them over so he could estimate the cost of cleaning this unit.

As he looked out the balcony, he saw the other condo development across the big drain flowing by our place.

Excitedly pointing to a penthouse at the highrise, he said: "You see that penthouse? They have a pontianak (banshee) lurking somewhere near there. So many people have heard the occasional mengilai (shrieking) sounds in the wee hours of the morning."

Jeez, I felt like wringing the fellow's neck. I am a known chicken-heart and tales like these don't sit well with me. "You gotta be kidding," I squeaked, my nape prickling.

"Alah, I don' know how far it's true la Mak Ngah (middle aunt), but my company cleans that place regularly and we were told about it by the workers there," he soothed.

As you would have noticed by now, I prefer to write past midnight. Somehow I always think best in the quiet of the night.

But since that 'revelation', I find myself listening keenly to the sounds around me. Frankly, I don't want to hear any screaming banshee and I think the story is sheer humbug, yet you never know....

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Serabai, Love at First Bite

I desperately need a holiday; no, not one of those crazy European jaunts costing a small fortune and covering 10 countries in 15 days. That's sheer madness.

All I need is just a short break. I really need a breather after the house moving and before the next big task, an exhibition-cum-conference at the end of this month.

[To digress; son Joe left for Redang Island off Terengganu over the weekend for a spot of diving with some friends. Lucky fellows..]

A weekend in Penang would do. There's always Nasi Kandar Line Clear, Gurney Drive 'glutton square' and the absolutely marvelous street market at Batu Feringhi to look forward to.

Pak Abu is simply crazy about that Line Clear nasi kandar; he thinks it's the best ever. As for me, I am so-so with mamak food. Being half-Kelantanese, my taste veers towards Thai cooking.

Two years ago in Penang our lecturer friend Maria invited us over for breakfast at her place where she served this apom-like dish called serabai, eaten with sweet gravy.

Serabai is a puffed-up small pancake off-white in colour and steamed before serving. It is best eaten with sweet gravy (perhaps with durian flesh thrown in) but spicy curry does the job just as well.

I knew of serabai but had never seen nor eaten it until that day in Maria's place. It was love at first bite for me; I couldn't get enough of it. But where can you get serabai in Kuala Lumpur?
[pix of Serabai courtesy of Raqin Rafiqyn of Photopages)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Road Not Taken

Left: The Trio

Ever wonder what life would have been like had you taken a completely different path in your younger days?

I know it is an exercise in futility; in fact it can even bring back searingly painful memories. But I do indulge in it occasionally and the pain does ease over time.

Pak Abu said he rued the day he decided not to go for his doctorate, despite advice from his professor, all because he wanted so badly to come home after spending many years in a foreign land.

For me, the lowest ebb of my life was when I had to turn down offers from a couple of universities in the US because my maternal instinct was stronger than my academic aspiration.

I had just graduated from a local college and was given an opportunity under the TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programme to pursue an English course that would officially qualify me to teach college-level English.

Instead, the ex and I got involved in a tussle of wills. I had wanted the children with me but he was adamant they weren't going anywhere without him.

A stalemate ensued; someone had to back down and that someone had to be me. Deep down I knew I could not concentrate on my studies with the thought of those three kids on my mind.

With the benefit of hindsight, would I have acted any differently? Not very likely. I just don't have it in me to be ruthlessly selfish in pursuit of a dream.

Perhaps I'm just weak-willed, but when it involves the children, I know they will always come first, at whatever cost.

The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost, 1915)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood
and I--I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stranded on Expressway at 3am

It was one of those dreaded phone calls parents pray they wouldn't get. Maybe I am overreacting, but I am the mother of two daughters in their 20s, so I dread this kind of SOS calls.

It was 3 o'clock this morning when daughter Ann called, saying her car broke down at Mile 13.5 of NKVE (New Klang Valley Expressway), just past Subang toll plaza on the road to Klang.

She had just finished work and was giving two colleagues a lift; one to Klang and the other to Sri Hartamas, before going home herself to Bandar Utama.

I was beside myself with worry. That stretch of the highway is pretty lonely even in daytime, but there are a lot of heavy vehicles at night heading towards Port Klang and the South.

Fortunately she was with two others; still safety wasn't guaranteed. Pak Abu and I, together with Naj in another car, immediately headed out to the place.

We got there within 20 minutes. While Naj sent the two journalists home we waited with Ann in a light drizzle for a towtruck that never came.

Unfortunately, none of us had phone numbers of independent towing companies handy. Looking around, I felt a chill up my spine, especially since there were many trees and bushes by the side of the expressway.

I told everyone to get into our car and lock the door, for safety's sake. In the mean time, Ann tried calling AAM, but her membership has expired, so they were not very helpful.

They said they would try to get a towtruck and would call her back. They never did.

We waited for 45 minutes for a call that never came. Next she called Proton Assist, but since her car is from Perodua, they declined to help but asked her to call Plus Ronda instead, which she did.

They arrived within 20 minutes, checked her car and decided to tow it to the nearest toll plaza - the Shah Alam Bukit Jelutong Plaza - for safety.

They were efficient, helpful and kindly, at 4.30 am. Kudos to Plus for having such courteous staff. To the two guys manning towtruck WPP 6004, we can't thank you enough.

We finally got home past 5am, tired and hungry, but went to bed instead.

Pak Abu said Ann was foolhardy to attempt to drive all the way to Klang at that hour, but she argued there were three of them.

On my part, I was in no mood to give my five-sen worth. I was just glad it ended well.

Pillow Talk, Sort Of...

When I was a little girl, my grandmother taught me how to wake up on time without the benefit of an alarm clock.

"Just pat your pillow a couple of times and gently ask it to wake you up. It will, take my word for it," grandma said. And that is what I have been practising without fail ever since.

I would like to have it known that, after more than half a century, my pillows (and there must have been over a hundred since) have not failed me yet.

Pak Abu laughed when I first told him of this. Yet, those pillows have been instrumental in making sure Pak Abu does not miss his morning golf.

Don't get me wrong, though. It's not like I believe in the powers of pillows or anything (apart from the fact that pillows can make you feel woozy) - far from it. Let's just say I don't understand it but am not losing sleep over it.

Some things are just beyond explanation. Take my subuh (dawn) prayers, for example. I am a habitual early riser, up and about by 6 am, which gives me no reason whatsoever to miss my morning prayers.

Yet, there had been times when I tried to glue my eyes shut upon hearing the azan (call to prayers), mostly out of reluctance to leave the warm bed.

And guess what? The moment I drifted off to sleep again, rest assured one of these three things would happen - either the blanket was slowly pulled off me, or someone/something would tickle the sole of my foot, or a voice would say "HAH!" into my ears.

I am not afraid. I prefer to think of it as a gentle reminder from someone who cares.

As my grandparents used to say: "We are surrounded by God's creatures, seen and unseen, good and evil. Some are kind and helpful, some are bad and destructive."

"We are never alone. Learn to accept and live alongside them just as we do with our fellow humans." I think that's the wisest advice yet.