Saturday, October 18, 2008

Halloween and Cleopatra

This week, Princess of the House told me she would like to go “Trick or Treat” with 2of her classmates. I hesitated for a while before saying yes. Last year, after Halloween, I said there would be no more “Trick or Treat”. But I buckled.

I don’t believe in Halloween. But I do believe in allowing Princess some freedom to exercise a bit of creativity, and to have lots of fun. So every year, I am a dutiful accomplice as she takes her flights of fancy into the hollow world of Halloween.

Last year, I went over the top. To greet the neighbourhood’s kids looking for treats, I decorated our front door with a huge spider web, completed with a rubbery mother-spider with her baby spiders -- I even spun my own spider web made out of wool. The funny thing was, the real cob webs at my front door lent real spectacular effects to my Halloween decoration. Mum would have been appalled at my standard of house cleaning.

Halloween, it is not a Kiwi tradition, nor a Chinese one. This Halloween business is a result of globalization, or the Americanization of the world, whichever you choose to call it. Would we see an American kid carrying a Chinese lantern to celebrate the mi-Autumn festival? I don’t think so? But I hope Chinese lanterns will sprout over supermarkets all over the world, one day, near mid-autumn.

The last few years, Princess went around in fairy outfits. I think she has outgrown this fairy thing. This year, she wants to be Cleopatra. Ah, Cleopatra – the most beautiful woman of Egypt. Or should I say, the most feared woman?

The little that I did know about Cleopatra from my limited history was that she was a woman of beauty; she charmed men and ruled an empire with a fist.

“Who did Cleopatra marry?” Princess asked Hubby.

“Huh? Hmmm…. Tutunkhamun??” Hubby replied.

Princess and I cracked up, roaring in laughter. Clearly Hubby wasn’t a history whizz.

Cleopatra trivia
Lately Princess of the House considers herself a bit of a Cleopatra expert. Her class has been learning about ancient Egypt. She has just read a romanticized version of Cleopatra’s life as a 12 year old, a book written by an ex-banker turned writer, Caroline Corby.

“Caesar first,” she quipped, “and then Marc Anthony,” she adds, still smarting from her victory over Daddy.

The Egyptians, Princess of the House tells me, invented eye make-up and the water clock. They invented writing and paper. They embalmed their dead, wore plenty of amulets.

Eye makeup
For now, Princess is most concerned about how to make herself look like Cleopatra using eye makeup – just like the ancient Egyptians. She had an “Egyptian” dress ready, one she made with her friend Holly during the school holidays – using a hot glue gun and lots of sparkly bits and fabric paint.

I wasn’t sure about that the eye make-up thing. And I wasn’t sure about Caroline Corby’s version of the romanticized Cleopatra who was all good and sanitized.
Did Cleopatra wear heavy eye makeup?

So I googled a bit. Cleopatra, as it seems, isn’t all sugar and honey. She was ruthless and cunning, and ruled to win.

She had two main lovers in her life – Caesar and Marc Anthony. Caesar, it was said, she admired for his intelligence; and Marc Anthony, probably out of sheer fatal attraction. Historical sites say Marc Anthony had his affair with Cleopatra while still married to his wife, Fulvia. And when he had a chance to marry Cleopatra after Fulvia died, he didn’t – he chose his rival Octavian’s sister (to secure political support), Octavia and continued his fling with Cleopatra.

Cleopatra gave birth to three children (one by Caesar and three (including a set of twins sired by Marc Anthony).

The Marc Anthony-Cleopatra combination as lovers was far from romantic. It reeked of fatal attraction, and cloak-and-dagger politics. It was about animal instincts, a woman’s need for love, a woman’s quest to secure a crumbling empire, and a matriach's desperate attempt to keep her family in power. What is most interesting is Cleopatra wasn’t even Egyptian – she was a Macedonian!

Hollywood's Cleopatra
Cleopatra, I imagined to be a woman of untold beauty. Ah, the Hollywood version of Cleopatra was a woman of Elizabeth Taylor-type beauty, with bangs on her hair, a sharp high-bridged nose, and almond-shaped eyes decorated with heavy eye make-up.

The more I googled, the more I found myself to be wrong. As it turns out, Cleopatra’s image, minted on coins, showed her to be somewhat plain, with a large hooked nose and not so beautiful. Apparently, in real life, she shaved her head and wore a wig with tight curls. Princess is convinced Cleopatra wore eye makeup.

What else did I learn about Cleopatra? Well, her father Ptolemy was also a murderer –he beheaded his own daughter (Berenice) to regain his throne. Ptolemy then married Cleopatra (who was around 18 years old) off to her brother (who was around 12, according to one source) – all to keep the throne within the family.

This was getting too much for me. After her first lover, Caesar, was assassinated, Cleopatra used her relationship with Marc Anthony in various ways to have her hold over Egypt. In the meantime, Marc Anthony was using Cleopatra and Egypt’s finances and harvest to keep his hold over the struggle for Rome.

In ended in tears – Marc Anthony committed suicide (one source says he did so because he thought Cleopatra was dead) and lost his struggle for Rome to arch rival Octavian.

On discovering Marc Anthony dead, Cleopatra apparently chose to commit suicide too. One source says she allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (a poisonous snake) smuggled into her room via a basket of figs. The different sources that I read make me think that Cleopatra used Marc Anthony – yes she did have a soft spot for him -- in her struggle to keep her empire intact.

How tragic. This was the life of Cleopatra. A highly intelligent woman no doubt; brave on all accounts; an exceptional linguist I found; and a woman who can charm with her brilliant speech. Cleopatra of history was also a woman drunk on power and reckless ambition. A murderer and nasty piece of work by all accounts.

I shudder to think why Princess would want to go as Cleopatra in her Halloween outing. I’d rather she go as a fairy, with wings, a magic wand, and glass slippers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Of ABBA, the sisterhood and, oh sorry mum!

We had a girls’ night out. It would have been nothing out of the ordinary for girls to have a night out. But we were a bunch of Asian women – six to be precise. We were a conservative lot, brought up the old-fashioned way by our mums who knew nothing about getting away. Our sense of the world is defined largely by how well we looked after our family.

We were also a bunch of gals who led busy lives. Some of the gals in the sisterhood had been through the worst time of their lives with family dramas of heinous proportions. I had just been through months of stay with Princess of the House in hospital.

I was brought up by a mother who dedicated her entire life to being a kitchen goddess, which means, she spent -- and still spends -- most of her waking moments in the inner sanctum of my parent’s home, cooking, cooking and cooking. Mum comes alive when she cooks. She also takes great pride in crisp clothes and spotless floors. Mum forgets about herself when she is taking care of us. We were never short of good meals or clean clothes. She never talked about time out. She never had time out. She never had a life beyond caring for us -- her family.

Defining success
I suspect my girlfriends have mums just like mine. But unlike our mums, we all had jobs, and modern machinery to help us with our chores. Like our mums, we tended to fuss over our family. Like our mums, we forget about our needs and focus entirely on how to keep the family together, in one piece, at all cost. Like a protective lioness, we guard our dens well. Like our mums, we define our success mostly by how our families are looked after, and how they cherish us.

But unlike our mums, we feel the attraction posed by our feminist sisters – those who fought for a voice, for equal opportunities, and also a time-out concept. We are not the bra-burning types and you won’t find us marching for women’s rights. But it didn’t take us long to feel the intoxication of the moment – of being free for one night, from cooking, scrubbing burnt pots, handling laundry, taking the garbage out and stacking dishes away.

This gathering of the sisterhood is good – especially when you have great company. We had a fantastic meal at this place called Eiji. To be that busy on a Friday night, the restaurant must have something special going. Our dishes were cooked to perfection. We ooed and ahhhed at how well everything was presented. We rolled out of the restaurant, happy as kids!

Then we headed off to a Mama Mia! We didn’t have sequin tops or platform shoes. But we had the cinema mostly to ourselves, truckloads of popcorn, icecreams and lollies. Only our reserve and conservatism kept us from total abandonment and jumping up to dance to “Dancing Queen” or “Mama Mia”.

What is it about ABBA?
What is it about a movie like Mama Mia! that manages to strike such a chord that box office receipts have totaled over US$440 million? Perhaps there is a dancer inside all of us, dying to surface? Perhaps inside us, we all crave the garishness of shinny outfits with plunging necklines, fancy furs, and platform boots? Perhaps it is the catchy tunes of ABBA, expressing our wish for eternal youth, romance in a complicated world? Who knows?

The total escape from home into the world of Abba songs and the romance of the movie was most electrifying.

By the time the movie finished, we came close to midnight. No carriage awaited us. But like Cinderallas afraid our cars would revert to being pumpkins, we stepped into the dark Friday night to hurry to our separate homes. We weren’t on curfew but our inner programmes told us we were meant to head home now that we had our share of fun and laughter.

Sorry mum
Our ladies night out was a resounding success, we all agreed. The sisterhood plans to have another outing. Perhaps a get-away where our families can’t call. Only this time far more than a few hours in a night. Dare I? Dare we? For me, a sisterhood get-away weekend would be a brave new world. It would be like travelling on a train to Hogsworth, on a matrix that would spin me into a different world – that so far removed from what mum taught me – family above self, family above all. Mum, so sorry I have moved on. So have my sisters, I suspect.