2013: the year in review

I’ve been meaning to write a 2013 “year in review” post for a while now. And suddenly it’s February, which is a little late, but never mind. Rebecca’s in Bangkok (I just checked online and her fight has landed) and the nanny is taking care of the kid, so there’s no time like the present.

But where to begin? It was such a strange year. One of the best and one of the worst in my life. Such extremes: I generally wish my life was on a more even keel and less prone to spikes and dips and peaks and troughs but there you go. Life, eh? Can’t live with it; can’t live without it.

About a year ago, we “lost” mum, which was a devastating blow still being felt today. I use quotation marks since she didn’t die, and is still alive today. But this time last year, she started to act very weirdly—severe memory issues and behavioral changes were the main symptoms. It was as if she had sudden and acute-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which generally doesn’t come on like acutely and suddenly. The most worrying thing was when she went AWOL in her car one time: to this day, we still don’t know where she went and never will. That was when we knew it was serious.

So we had a battery of tests performed culminating in a brain biopsy, which revealed she had/has PML, a viral infection that normally infects HIV-positive people. It infected mum because her immune system was suppressed due to years of immunosuppressant drugs for her arthritis. I say “we” meaning my sister and my dad since I am a quadrillion miles away in Jakarta, so am largely a spectator in all of this. This situation makes it all the harder to deal with, a theme I will return to later.

The prognosis was bleak. PML stands for Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy, and the key words in there are “progressive” and “multifocal.” The disease attacks the brain in many areas and doesn’t stop; it is always fatal, we were told, and so rare that nobody could tell us really what to expect.

The end result was that mum was hospitalized and eventually ended up in a care home where she lives to this day among other mental patients, for want of a better phrase. She has had periods of extreme physical distress, including one where we thought it was the end (to the point where Rebecca and I mapped out a plan for me to attend her funeral); she has had moments of lucidity, though they are few and far between; she is generally unaware of her situation and the comings and goings of daily life. She is child-like and maddeningly contrary at times. But she’s our mum and we love her.

That’s now, of course. Back to my year in review and April 2013 saw the birth of baby Rayven Matthew Leppard. As I type this, I have a photo of him only hours old in front of me stating his date and time of birth (April 4 at 8:30pm). A moment of pure joy, although also not without its problems: Rebecca’s labour was painful and problematic and complicated, though it all started so beautifully. Her contractions came according to plan and we checked in and shored up for the big push, since we desperately wanted a normal birth and not a Caesarean. I was prepped for Rebecca to swear like a trooper at me and she was psyched for a world of pain.

It wasn’t to be. After many false starts, the contractions just didn’t get stronger and many excruciating examinations later, it was decided that Ray had to come out of the front door. So Rebecca was wheeled down to the operating theater with me in tow, eventually decked out in scrubs and boots. Then we entered the theater. It was a surreal experience: I was shielded by a sort of canopy up by her head so I couldn’t see the goings on in Rebecca’s tummy. At one point, they put her out completely and that was weird: one moment she was talking and the next she was unconscious and I found this very unsettling. This was the moment of the big push, and out Ray popped, screaming. He hasn’t really stopped since—more of which later.

In May, my grandmother died, which in and of itself wasn’t a big surprise (she was in her mid-90s), but the timing was quite bad. We had already “lost” mum and now we lost granny. In the end, neither of them got to meet my son, which is a regret I have to live with, but again such is life. And of course, the person who felt all this the most deeply was and is my father.

So with all the goings on and with Ray still in the newborn phase of sleeping and staring at the ceiling in between crying, Rebecca and I decided that we should visit the UK in August, to coincide with the Muslim holiday here in Indonesia. It was a strange and bittersweet trip: the reduced family got to meet Ray and we got to see mum, which was less of a shock than I thought it would be, largely because she was still “there” physically and occasionally mentally though there is no doubt she couldn’t really put together who we were and who Ray was.

The trip also gave us the opportunity to reconnect with my sister and father, which was much needed given all the stresses and happenings. Ray was on top form: fat and full-on with his crying, he didn’t let up for the whole time it seemed. It was also nice to see our nephew Thomas and Saffron’s husband Rich, as well as one or two friends. Warm and fragrant, the summer was in full flow: the nights were long and humid and it was in stark contrast to our winter visit there the previous Christmas.

Mum’s absence in her and dad’s home was one of the hardest adjustments to take, speaking of contrasts. Where before she had driven the house and home, now there was no driving force. My dad simply isn’t equipped to deal with life alone and the house felt incomplete and unfinished, wanting for life and ringing with absence and loneliness.

Still, we did manage to take mum out a few times for walks and trips into town and these, along with trips with dad and Saffron to Winchester and Bournemouth, remain my abiding memories of the trip.

Back to Jakarta and shortly after our trip, Rebecca started work at a local luxury hotel. This was a big blow to me, of course: my job is demanding and tiring and she had been my home-based angel of mercy since she moved to Jakarta shortly after I started my own job. Now, with baby on board, she was going to be working. I felt at a loss for a long time and found the adjustment hard (I still do at times). Ray was starting to be more demanding and mobile and suddenly needed day care. Rebecca’s mum stepped in but this could never be a permanent solution.

But we coped. We eventually found a good nanny and settled into a sort of routine. We both leave early in the morning together and then I get back from work a little earlier than Rebecca: with just about enough time to hit the gym and then prep Ray for sleep. Both of our jobs are demanding and Rebecca’s involves being on call in the hotel late into the night once a month. Again, a tough adjustment for me, but we coped. We always do.

A few months ago, Ray started pre-school in a gym in a local shopping mall. He bounces and crawls and gurgles and rattles all the toys (he started crawling at about the same time as he started school) and goes three times a week. Once with Rebecca and me and twice with grandma. He seems to enjoy it and it’s a good way of helping him get rid of all his excess energy, of which he seems to have a boundless supply. Ten months in and he’s more of a joy than he was at first, chattering endlessly and with a definite personality. He just recovered from his first serious illness: hand, foot and mouth disease, which saw him house-bound for two weeks.

So that’s about all for 2013. Rebecca and I ended the year in the Brewhouse at her hotel. It was a low-key affair but I managed to put away enough beers to overcome my social awkwardness and have a reasonably good time. Rebecca was in her element and we were happy. And in the end, that’s all that matters. The year won’t go down in memory as one of the best of my life, despite the birth of Ray: there is simply no way of offsetting the mum situation. But it had its fair share of moments, and those I will cherish.

Two years later…

There’s something about heading towards your 30’s. It makes you think about your 20’s. I have to say, though, I did not enjoy my early 20’s. From 20 to 24, I was under pressure to succeed: graduate on time with honours (√) and get my name on the masthead of a national publication (√).

After I got a job, I worked hard both to lose weight and get a promotion, which means working 9 to 9 and be at the gym for an hour everyday. Again, I achieved both and still unhappy. I didn’t know what it was; I thought it was just a quarter-life crisis. So before my 25th birthday in September 2008, I made a conscious decision to live my life carefree. (See the irony there? I planned to be more spontaneous.)

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Slingshot ride to celebrate 25th birthday

I quit my job in August 2008, joined a new company and after 8 months, accepted another job offer in June 2009. I still have the piles of old business cards in mint condition! I couldn’t (be bothered to) file my tax form because I had three jobs in one year.

I remember being miserable at 2009 New Year’s Eve party because I had nothing to look forward to. That’s what I said to my best friend that night. Especially that I wasn’t really happy with my new job I felt had nothing exciting waiting for me that year. Boy, could I be more wrong?

I made my biggest career move to Bali by mid 2009 and subsequently broke up a short-lived relationship that was not right anyway.

I finally learned that one really couldn’t plan one’s future. With that thought, I refused to buy a car or a house in Bali despite people’s advice. I couldn’t even commit to a year-advance airline promotion because my job required me to be able to travel in short notice.

One of those business trips was to Singapore, attending a trade event. The event is regular, but I didn’t know if I was gonna go and how long I was gonna be there because there’s a black-tie event in Jakarta that I also had to attend.

Little that I knew that it was THE trip that changed my life.

If you don’t know me, I should tell you that I lived my life like a Samantha Jones of Sex and The City. True to form: I was a PR pro who refused to settle down and saw men as interchangeable parts of a woman’s life.

So I went to Singapore with my “Samantha Jones” costumes lined up, along with the attitude *snaps*. That was without knowing that it was going to be my last stint as a carefree single woman.

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That night! (Notice how we sort of wanted to get closer to each other?)

It was the party where crème de la crème of Asian travel industry gathered where I met Matthew, the man of the evening and who eventually made an honest woman out of me. (Didn’t know it was possible!)

And just after Matthew and I recently mapped out our Q3 and Q4 travel plans, including my monthly business trip to Bali, my birthday celebration in London, and Christmas vacation in Hanoi, we were again being laughed at by fate.

Yup, mere two years after our first encounter at the coffee stand of Suntec Convention Centre Singapore, we found out: we’re pregnant.

Happy anniversary, honey! All I want for anniversary present is a good back rub and foot massage please 🙂

The story of a low fat oxtail soup

Okay… This is an impromptu post due to popular demand of my Low Fat Oxtail Soup recipe.

Disclaimer: I honestly don’t like oxtail. My good friends will testify that I normally only eat the broth and vegetables around oxtail soup.

So, this began with Matthew and I being unhappy with our existing stubborn body fat. We both love eating so much that we think it’s just not possible to reduce portion or frequency.

At Warung Eropa, Bali. LOVE the crispy duck and sambal! (Notice that Matt only eats itsy bitsy tuna salad? Pfft!)

The best way is then to make sure that what we put in our mouths is the perfect balance of high in taste and low in toxic, sugar, and trans fat. And the only way to ensure that is to always cook it myself whenever possible. Matthew and I always eat my home cooked meal every day, three times a day, except when we’re travelling or attending a social call.

Matthew’s lunch box. Prepared every morning with BBC News on the background.

It’s pretty embarrassing when we have guests at home and they sometimes point out that every product we have in our fridge is low sugar, non-fat, and unsalted. It’s embarrassing for me because I never wanted to be that pretentious girly girl who orders skinny latte. *pokes finger in the mouth* But fair enough, since we’re not getting any younger and none the slimmer, we do have to watch our health on top of our waistline. So I agreed to go down this route that Matthew started.

A big HOWEVER, I have to claim that there are things I don’t want to give up. First and foremost is MSG. Second is rice. Third is meat. Go ahead and call me Asian!

And now back to the point, my low-fat oxtail soup and any other of my low-fat dishes consist of basically the same thing as the original recipe. What makes them low-fat is the smart ingredients substitution. For example, while restaurants and warungs cannot afford using with olive or canola oil all the time, I can! Also, we follow the right proportion. For each plate, we serve 50% vegetable, 25% meat/protein source, 25% starch/carbohydrate source.

Cooking tip: I stir fry the carrot with spring onion before mixing them with the oxtail soup. It makes the carrot crispy! Plus, the aroma of fried spring onion is yummy!

So, please find yourself or use whatever recipe of whatever dish, I don’t create new recipe! But here’s the substitution I normally have instead of the fattier one:

Oxtail lean stir-fry cut beef and/or mixed with lean minced beef… in supermarkets you can ask the attendant for beef that has less fat or you can see that the meat is all red without white fatty bits.
Palm oil canola oil, sunflower oil, olive oil
Sugar the good ol’ honey… I never like nor recommend artificial sweetener because it’s laxative, expensive, and does not taste good at all
Fruit to blend or juice To refrain from using sugar at all, always use the very ripe fruit. If you see a banana or strawberry that doesn’t look appealing, as it’s almost rotten, don’t throw it away! It will make THE best smoothie ingredient.
Yogurt I am currently in love with Elle & Vire brand as they have a 0% fat product line with various flavours that have the fruit pulps in it!
Spices Since I cannot not include MSG in my food I try to limit the amount. But my Asian taste buds need strong and powerful flavour. So what I normally do is to go liberal on spices like onion, spring onion, shallot, garlic, chilli, paprika, and pepper. I use a combination of most if not all the above in one dish every single time. I live in Asia where spices grow effortlessly and I thank God for that.
Rice I don’t and can’t substitute rice with anything. Also, I’ve just learned that the tip I’d been practicing was a myth! It was: to cook/steam rice the day before you want to consume it. Take it from the cooker, let the steam out, and then keep it in a container over night in the fridge. Reheat it just before you eat it.The new tip I learned today, which I will start doing is: to always choose brown rice if possible and to soak the rice overnight before cooking it, as the rice will be easier to digest. This will prevent constipation and other digestive problems.

The important thing to remember in any diet method is to enjoy your meal. Matthew and I always clean our plates because we don’t sacrifice flavour over calories. Really, life is short so not enjoying an activity you do 3-5 times a day is unacceptable. Tasteless dish is bullshit. But above all, there is no food or drink in the world that is literally to die for!

Grilled chicken breast with garlic, lemon, and butter sauce. Served with a side dish of boiled string bean and l.o.v.e