Sunday, October 26, 2008

I don't need a man...

...Instead, I need a NARRATIVE.

Not just any narrative. A Plausible Narrative.

And not just a plausible narrative, but a plausible, UN-CLICHED narrative.

That is not too much to ask, is it?

We are now in the last bank holiday weekend of this eventful year, and as misfortune would have it, so far it has been a complete wash-out, with severe weather warnings about gusty gales and lashing rain (at the time of writing, it's in the wee hours of Sunday, so I still think of it as Saturday, if you get my drift).

So the usual then.

That however did not put a dampeners on my spirits as I approached this long weekend, for I am finally lifting my self-imposed social curfew to let my hair down (a bit) and reclaim a semblance of life back. The excuse that my manipulative right-brain gave to my rational left-brain was that, since imposing the curfew I still haven't been making the kind of progress that I needed on my thesis, so why force myself to continue taking a bitter pill when it's shown to not actually work?

So my best friend and I bought tickets to see the Paco Pena afternoon show, to be followed by dinner and drinks. The flamenco dance show seemed to us the perfect way to kick-start the long weekend, and we were relieved when we went to collect the tickets at the box office that, even though it was a matinee show (albeit the last one as its run finished today, i.e. Saturday), it was completely sold out and there were still enquiries about return tickets. In the event the male dancers didn't disappoint - one looked yummy enough to eat, especially when he arched his well-rounded bottoms (oh don't act so appalled by the fact that the female gaze exists) as he did the dance-off routine with the female dancer; the other was disgusting-looking but was an entertaining show-off, revelling in his Dorothy-in-Oz flaming red shoes, campily clicking and clacking his way to the audience's applause.

Afterwards we repaired to our old reliable watering hole Cafe en Seine for food and drinks, keen to get out of the wind and rain and general dreariness of a typical late autumn day. By the time we settled down it was almost 6pm already, and I was absolutely starving as hitherto I had only had a late breakfast, due to an unplanned-for lie-in (my original goal was to get up at 7 and start on my long overdue house-chores - I guess I should have known that my overambitious goal was doomed to failure). So the two of us ordered a food platter meant for four and started getting in the cocktails.

It was during the course of the evening that I suddenly had an epiphany about all my romantic failures (yes let's not beat about the bush and call a spade a spade) to date.

As my friend and I caught up on our lives (hers decidedly way more exciting than mine since she has joined a sailing club and is working her way to a skipper's license in her spare time, availing her with plenty of opportunities to hob-nob with members of the sailing class, which, she insists, is NOT a bunch of snobs at all but normal people like you and I, and actually I believe her, I think), I inevitably reflected on where it all went wrong, although I'm not such a kill-joy (thank Goddess I still have the minimum social awareness for such things) as to keep moaning and groaning about my life the first chance I see my friend properly for a while (for unfettered moaning and groaning I turn conveniently to this blog).

But the epiphany came when two nice-looking blokes (one older, one younger) sat next to our table just after our cocktails arrived. My friend noticed that they had the Paco Pena programme on their table (in fact, it was positioned such that we could easily read the cover), so they also just came in after seeing the same show as us. And thanks to the dependably snooty wait staff in our section, who studiously ignored our desperate eye contact pleas for service, preferring instead to clear out pint glasses from large tables that clearly didn't welcome interruptions to their high-octane conversations, the nice blokes' eyes conveniently drift across to us for commiserations and empathy as they failed yet again to catch the attention of the self-involved waiter.

So being a normal single person, my friend responded to the older bloke's self-deprecating joke and started commiserating about the spectacularly-bad-but-convenient-as-conversation-starter service, and thus for a little while the four of us became united in our opinions that Cafe en Seine wasn't what it used to be and it's another sign that this country has gone to the dogs. Now that we were all talking, the conversation segued conveniently to Paco Pena by virtue of the programme on the table... Or it would have if I had allowed it to go in that direction properly, but for some reason I was beginning to have a visceral reaction to how the evening storyline is shaping out that I nibbed it in the bud by the tried-and-tested subtle-but-not-so-subtle slight back-turning and the directing of talk back solely to my friend.

What the bloody hell is bloody wrong with me?

After sleeping on it for a bit, I think I know the answer. Hence this blog post and its title (which I'm sure I'd regret in the bright dawn of the day which at this time of the year comes around 8am) in the wee hours of the morning.

My epiphany is this: Despite the many opportunities of meeting interesting men in my life over the last while, I nonchalantly let these chances slip away from my fingers, not because (as I hitherto thought to myself) that I am busy with my thesis and don't have time for a relationship and don't want one anyway given my new-found freedom and glorious status (not so glorious now obviously given the state of the property market) as queen of own abode; but because I simply CANNOT STAND the idea of Clichés. In. My. Life.

So that friendly chit-chat with those two good-looking blokes at the table right next to us, who have just after been seeing the same sold-out theatre show, who also had the good sense to come to the same bar afterwards and who too had subsequently been rewarded with icy cold service by the indifferent staff. That's wayyyyyyyyy too neatly coincidental for me. This would have been seen as fate in the eyes of some naifs, but not me - unfortunately my exposure to literary criticism and post-modern theory has inoculated me against the romantic value of neat coincidences.

Especially that eyes-drift-across-the-tables-and-jolt-of-electricity thing? Geez, kill me now with the cheesiest of all sentimental clichés why don't you!

I truly realised now my visceral reaction to anything remotely resembling a cliché - and it doesn't take much for me to consider something clichéd, just its mere appearance as a plot device in the arts (and whether we're talking about the high art of a Shakespearean play or the low-brow culture of Hollywood movies doesn't make a jot of difference) - is the reason why I let interesting men go.

So that time when a guy on a postgrad trip asked me, after hanging around for the best part of a hill walk, "So what books have you been reading lately?" as his stumbling start to a personal conversation, I internally balked even as I chatted away nonchalantly. I liked him and think he is rather sweet, but my girlfriends quickly and intuitively got the meaning of my reaction when I recounted the story, as one of them blurted out immediately: "But that's Mark Darcy's line from Bridget Jones!"

And like the conference last summer, when a guy I met at a reception, with whom I had great conversations not only about academic stuff but also about the world and our cultural backgrounds, kindly walked me back to my hotel (in case any person would think me a slag, I have to clarify that we were initially accompanied by a couple of other academic friends but their hotel was closer to the conference venue than mine), he stopped and asked if we could stretch out the evening further by going for a drink ourselves, and alarm bells were immediately going off in my head. Not so much because of his presumptuousness and apparent disregard for the conference programme the next day (both of which were serious concerns), but, rather disturbingly and laughably, because internally I had images of us as some kind of stereotypical-sad-academic-couple-who-met-each-other-at-academic-conference that I politely refused his offer and thanked him for the walk and sent him packing to his own hotel instead.

And earlier this summer, I met some of my fellow lecturers from other departments in my university when the Library invited a handful of us to a focus group convened for the purpose of helping it improve its online service. This would be just strictly business, or so I thought. I was so surprised to receive an e-mail afterwards by one of my fellow focus group members suggesting to meet up, even though I have not actually chatted to him at all apart from our mere exchange of views during the focus group discussion itself. He's around my age, he's American, he's visiting from an Ivy-league university, and for some strange reason he got hold of my e-mail address from the subject librarian after the session, and according to him we should go for coffee sometime, as he needs some advice to figure out the university and all.

Hmmm. He sure is an interesting man, and he's good-looking and God, intelligent. Shouldn't I jump him already? Jesus he's a good catch even from a purely academic perspective, and God knows we need networking in academia just as much as in the so-called Real World outside. But no. Silly, silly me pretended to ignore his e-mail, which he re-sent again, which I again, extremely stubbornly ignored. The reason for my extreme boneheaded silliness? It is too much visiting-gungho-American-meets-opinionated-local-girl affair, the premise of way too many cheesy American movies, for me to stomach returning his kind and obviously well-meaning overture.

These are the tip of the iceberg. Other clichés that came to mind include the You've-Got-Mail scenario (my reason for staying out of chat sites and not pursuing email correspondences with online blog friends), the damsel-in-distress-saved-by-knight-in-shining-armour Mills-and-Boons plotline (the kind guy friend who rescued me from my domestic disasters again and again? Not happening), the book-as-a-sign device straight out of Milan Kundera's much-celebrated novel (that time a guy wanted to chat to me when I was engrossed in Anna Karenina in a cafe), or the work-mate-turned-life-partner cliché (that lovely new guy in the office who's been very sweet to me? Sorry but we can't have the pen-in-office-ink scenario either, especially when I've learnt better from past experience), etc. etc. And on it goes.

Whatever. I know I'm sick.

The only blessing this adverse reaction to clichés has given me is that all my girlfriends could rest assured that I'm no danger to their boyfriends or husbands, as I could never ever stomach the thought of going behind their backs. It's not just that it's absolutely immoral, but also because IT'S JUST SUCH A BLOODY CLICHE! I cannot countenance the mere thought of becoming the exemplar of that old hoary anti-feminist stereotype about unmarried women, that single-girlfriend-being-a-danger-to-your-man melodrama.

But that is small, small comfort when faced with the reality that I cannot stand any cliché-like situation in my life, even when my life is probably full of such clichés and when such clichés bring apparently good things. I don't used to be like this, but now I don't see any way out of not reacting negatively to seemingly innocuous situations and even more seemingly innocent guys, apart from forcing myself to believe that life is stranger than fiction.

Except of course that there is already a bloody Hollywood movie (albeit sweet and quirky) by that very same name already.

Oh well. I realised that lately I've been chasing unrealistic ideas about leading an unconventional life unemcumbered by cultural clichés, and it's about time I get past my internal wince and look at the real person in front of me beyond the stultifying confines of a cliché and just enjoy the opportunities that life gives me to meet interesting people.

After all, not every encounter, however clichéd or refreshingly unconventional to start off with, is necessarily the beginning of a beautiful friendship, nor is it guaranteed to end in a cringeworthy finale.

Even when it does, so what? Life's a comedy too. Even if its comedic value is to be derived solely from our ability to laugh at our highly-inept selves in wincingly bad social situations. Not unlike those in Curb Your Enthusiasm, in fact.

So as not to look the gift horse in the mouth and squander yet more oppportunities Fortune has very kindly blessed me with, I've accepted my friend's invitation to come visit her at the sailing club, which apparently offers amazing views of sunset over Dublin Bay and yes, opportunity to get to know her sailing friends. We're also buying tickets for the next upcoming opera at the same venue, and I just remembered that I still owe two other girlfriends a night-out at the theatres after ill-advisedly promising to look up shows when the Dublin Theatre Festival was on and then having to bail out in the end.

And towards the end of this Bank Holiday I'd be seeing a bunch of my old mates at a house party, one of whom actually recently produced a sprog named Sean. The arrival of Little Seany was timed more or less the same as my initial thesis submission deadline, and my friend - bless her - delivered a healthy hefty baby ahead of schedule, whilst mine unfortunately seems to have indications of a still-birth and is undergoing intensive life support to save its precious, fragile life.

But I'm determined to pick up both the pieces of my life and its, just you wait and see.

Nota Bene: Some details of my reminiscences and descriptions above may have been changed to protect the innocent, including of course yours truly. After all, I was not born yesterday and am well alive to the dangers of cyber-stalking.

UPDATE:
Just saw this hilarious video on a HK stand-up comic whom I've never heard of before but whose particular segment parodying the romantic elements in Stephen Chow's movie kinda reflects the involuntary gagging reflex that I have to suppress whenever I'm faced with a cliched pick-up situation. It's in very poor taste, full of mangled profanity, and will no doubt bring down the tone of my cultivated, civilised blog, but it's worth a laugh.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The meaning of patience...

Conversation at dinner table over the weekend.

Dad: [lengthy "advice" talk to my little brother about what he needs to learn now that he's arrived at the ripe older and wiser age of 10]... [in Chinese] So do you know what I am talking about? [in English] Do you understand what "patience" means?

Little Brother: [in half whispers] Yeah.

Dad: What does it mean then?

Little Brother: [Still in half whispers] It means 耐性* lor.

[Collective jaws around the family table dropped. All of us were wide-eyed at my little brother's linguistic prowess, given how he's born here and has only been learning Chinese on Saturdays for a few years.]

Me: [Little Brother's name] you should not be afraid to speak louder when you know the answer, y'know.

Dad [visibly pleased but maintains a stern tone]: [In Chinese] That's clever that you know patience means 耐性 in Chinese. But what does it REALLY mean?

Little Brother: [In slightly higher volume and in English, though still hesitant] It means you don't care how long it takes.

[Another intake of breath around the table, followed by very proud smiles.]

Me: [To round off my little brother's sentence]. Yes, it means you don't mind how long it takes to complete a task that you have set for yourself.

Little Brother: [Nods]

Dad: [In Chinese] That's right. Hey I didn't realise you know this stuff. [Picks up a fish ball from the Chinese fondue broth and puts it in my little brother's bowl]. But would you learn to be patient now and stop throwing tantrums?

Little Brother: Yeah. [Smiles now that he realised the "examination" is over].

Mum: [Arrives at the table with more food and on hearing about the exchange on "patience", pats my little brother's head]. Really? I didn't realise your Chinese is so good. [Proceeds to give my little brother more food].

---------

Thanks to my little brother, I'm reminded of the true meaning of patience, which I need to apply to my work.

---------
*As I don't know how to type Chinese, I'm thankful to the Yahoo dictionary for allowing me to insert the actual words my little brother used on here.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

What does my house say about me?

What the House Test Says About You
You consider yourself important, but no more important than anyone else. You love attention, but you don't feel like you deserve more of it than anyone else.

You are a fairly community oriented person. You like to get to know your neighbors, but you also like your privacy. You get attached to neighborhoods and cities.

You are a calm, contemplative, and smart person. You take ideas very seriously.

You look good in a low maintenance sort of way. You do the minimum required to be attractive.

You are moved by the most simple of things. You can find pleasure from a small, perfect moment.

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Language, Poetry and Satire...

Cartoon by Doug Savage of Savage Chickens.

Oh I just loooove this! A non-doctrinaire, irreverent look at language. Dare I say there is a place for profanity in human expression as much as formal speech.


Cartoon by Doug Savage at Savage Chickens.

Wow. No wonder hardly anyone (excepting those kind souls with the most discerning tastes, that is ;P) reads my blog. The truth hurts. A lot.

At least my tortured-artist pretensions are skewered by one of my favourite cartoonists. I guess I couldn't ask for much more than that.

Sometimes you just have to hand it to the experts when it comes to shining the bright, soul-cleansing light of satire on a grim situation. The philosopher AC Grayling's little piece on hog management finally gave me my first genuinely good laugh at the crazy economic times we live in. Such as this gem of a passage:

But at a certain point the level of toxicity in the swill-cum-regurgitate as a whole reaches a level at which the entire herd of hogs flips into a sudden panic mode: now aware that they cannot continue to eat very fast and in large quantities without doing themselves injury, they all immediately stop eating, and begin to run around the feeding pound emitting loud fear-and-warning noises – and at the same time emitting noisome efflations resulting from the degree of toxicity of the swill over-indulged in, which has caused them tremendous bloating. It is a truly pitiable spectacle to see so many frightened flatulent hogs dashing fruitlessly about, begging for the keepers to come and clean out their feeding troughs and to administer medications to solve their digestive crisis.

And his contention that hogs are not self-regulating animals but in need of keepers with sharp sticks are especially prescient when faced with today's headline that says that bankers are still being rewarded mind-blowing multi-billion-dollar bonuses for their greed and incompetence.

Sometimes all the little men and women can do is laugh, however bitter our laughters may actually sound.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On my reading list...

... would be The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.

This has just been announced as the Man Booker Prize winner of this year.

I've always been interested in Anglo-Indian literature, from Vikram Seth to Arundathi Roy to that author of the "Booker of Bookers", Salman Rushdie, so I am very much looking forward to reading Adiga's work.

What's really heartening about this win to me, is that Adiga is a first-time author at age 33 (he was previously an Asia correspondent for Time magazine). The White Tiger is his first work of fiction and he won the Booker with this very first book, beating other more established authors to the coveted prize - indeed, seeing off Salman Rushdie's newest work which didn't even make it onto the short list! How inspirational is his win for aspiring authors like myself!

In his interview with BBC Newsnight's Kirstie Wark earlier, after receiving his £50,000 prize at the award ceremony, Adiga said that, although his book is not meant to be "an angry book" (one of the Booker judges has apparently characterised it as such), and shouldn't be seen as pure "social commentary" (in answer to Kirstie Wark's question), contemporary Indian literature should take a much more critical look at the changes taking place in Indian society and raise tough questions on issues such as the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. In his words, as India and China take their place on the world stage, they should be prepared to "take some of the blows" as well (though in literary terms of course). That they should no longer be "protected" from social criticisms and indeed, literary critique.

I couldn't agree more with him on the above. Although, it has to be said, he was not the only one to have attempted a critical look at Indian society, nor was he the key trailblazers of such a genre. Both Vikram Seth and Arundathi Roy, two Anglo-Indian authors that I deeply, deeply admire, have unflinchingly and unerringly dissected the various dysfunctions of post-Independence Indian society, whilst not losing sight of the central task of a storyteller - that of engaging the readers with the story and the characters. In fact, ever since I first read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in my first year in university, I have always harboured the wish that I would one day be able to write a magnum opus like that, one that would effortlessly take in stride the broad sweeps of history and illuminate how they shape contemporary society, and to reconstruct in depth within it, the lives of ordinary people.

That said, Adiga is the only one on the scene who made a stab at skewering the contradictions of contemporary India as it emerged as a global superpower since the turn of this century. I just can't wait to see how Adiga does it, and how his current efforts compare with Seth's or Roy's past achievements.*

The other more established (and some may argue, more deserving) authors on the Booker short-list included the Irish author Sebastian Barry, who wrote "The Secret Scripture". I haven't read any of Barry's work previously, but unfortunately, his will have to wait.

*Astute readers may notice how I didn't mention Rushdie here, and it is no accident. Despite how much he's been lauded as a contemporary literary giant, I really think he is more hype than substance. I read his Midnight's Children (voted as the Booker of Bookers) and the Ground Beneath Her Feet, and yes, I get his magical realism, but on that score I would have preferred Haruki Murakami. I also get his attempt to skewer traditional gender relations within straitjacket Indian conventions, but on that front Arundathi Roy did a far better job, with a much more authentic female voice. Moreover, his storytelling technique - the stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences - become a rather cliched imitation of the original master of stream-of-consciousness writing, our very own James Joyce. Critics have hammered Zadie Smith (when her first book White Teeth was out) as ripping off Salman Rushdie by not being skillful and authentic enough, yet I'm amazed they haven't actually applied the same critique to Salman Rushdie himself**. I'm really rather glad that his Enchantress of Florence didn't make it to the Booker short-list this year. He's been hogging the literary lime-light long enough, and it's really time it finally moves on to showcase other worthier talents.

**(A further digression). Of course, I'm saying all of the above without having read Rushdie's Satanic Verses, that seminal work on the basis of which he became an overnight international cause celebre due to the fatwas issued against him. But I really have no interest in reading that work of his because of how he had managed to turn that book and its reception in Arab countries into a sheer publicity stunt for himself. I still remember very clearly his interview on the Late Late Show here with Gay Byrne a looooong loooooong time ago (jeez, it must have been more than 15 years ago now!), when he was asked about the book and the fatwas and how he was coping with living life under 24-hour security. I remember in the course of the cordial Gay Byrne inteview, Rushdie gave this answer, "I find it very difficult to understand how anyone could be offended by a book. If you don't agree with a book, you could just shut it. Simple." On the surface, that seemed a rather reasonable stance to take. But that statement, and the non-chalant why-are-you-looking-at-me-I'm-just-a-nobody attitude inherent within it, is to me what made him a fraud. For a writer to try to pretend to not recognise the power of the written word, that to me is sheer hypocrisy. Not that I'm justifying the fatwas against him, NOT at all. But even at that tender young age (I must have been only 13 or at most 14 at the time) when I saw that interview, I believed and still believe that the pen can be mightier than the sword. On the surface Rushdie is against any manners of limits of freedom of expression, but he was either being disingenuous, or he was being very stupid when he asserted that the way to go about protecting the right to freedom of expression is to argue, as he did, that expression doesn't matter at all and doesn't mean anything at the end. Not because expression is innate to human nature and serves a vital function in society, but because it is, in his word, "harmless", so why not? Right. So we really shouldn't bother calling on Rushdie to defend literature if it happens to have any impact upon society.***

*** (An even further digression). In contrast to Rushdie, I'm so glad that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year is Le Clezio, who, according to the prize committee, is a "conjurer who tried to lift words above the degenerate state of everyday speech and to restore to them the power to invoke an essential reality." My French is nowhere fluent enough to be able to read his books in the original, and I understand that English translations of his works are not that easy to come by. But still, his works would be on the list of books (getting longer by the minute!) that I shall look forward to reading when I finish the dratted thesis!

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Morning...

Sitting on a window sill
Hands cupping a warm mug of tea
Pale rays of sunshine stream weakly in
My eyes slowly adjust to mid-dawn's darkness
Chasing tiny fragments of lingering dreams

Birdsongs quietly vibrate
In the cold damp air outside
Droplets of dew on bended leaves
Refract in hues the soft pearly greys
Of an undulating sheep's wool sky

Alarm bells of a neighbour's house
Went off like a lone banshee
Muffled by the indifference of families, couples, and singletons
Too enamoured with their cosy duvets
To care after a long and tiring week

'Tis the beginning of a new day
Filled with endless possibilities
As well as countless responsibilities
Can I pursue the former to the full
Without risking the wrath of my conscience -
Already, as it were, fully loaded with guilt?

(c) Snowdrops 2008. All rights reserved.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Song going through Sarah Palin's head during the VP debate...

("I Have Confidence in Me" by Julie Andrews)
(Original lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II. Amended lyrics: Snowdrops)

What will this day be like, I wonder?
What will my future be, I wonder?

It could be so exciting,
To be out on the stage, to be seen...
My heart should be wildly rejoicing...

Oh... What's the matter with me?

I have always longed for attention,
To do the things I've never dared.
Now here I'm getting attention
Then why am I so scared?

Biden with years of experience...
What's so fearsome about that????

Oh I must stop these doubts, all these worries.
If I don't I just know I'll turn back.
I must dream of the things I am seeking...

I am seeking the intelligence I lack....

The intelligence to serve my country with reliance
Face my mistakes without defiance

Show them I'm ready!
And while I show them,
I'LL SHOW ME!

SO let them bring on all their questions!
I'll do better than my worst!
I have confidence they'll put me to the test
But I'll make them see I have confidence in me!

Somehow I will impress them...
I will be folksy but firm...

And all those voters - Heaven bless them - THEY WILL LOOK UP TO ME!

And mind me! With each wink I am most certain,
Everything will turn out fine!

I have confidence the world can all be mine!
They'll have to agree I have confidence in me.

I have confidence in Cheney!
I have confidence in Bush!
I have confidence that McCain will win this time!
Besides which, you see, I have confidence in ME!

Strength doesn't lie in poll numbers!
Strength doesn't lie in facts!
Strength lies instead in cheerful ignorance...
All mavericks, WAKE UP!
We're a team!

All the neocons I gave my soul to.
All their lines become my own.
I have confidence in confidence alone....

(The world groans: Oh help!)

I have confidence in confidence alone....

Besides which, you see,
I have CON-FI-DENCE in MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

(photo credit: theimproper.com)



(Pity I don't have the video-editing skills to actually match the above modified song to Palin's debate clips!)

(Post edited again on 12 February 2010 to re-insert the broken video link)

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Viewfinder...

Where are you from?

Que sera sera...

Feed my pet!

Currently getting stuck in...

Have just finished...

Me, Anime...

A bunch of snowdrops by any other name...

SNOWDROPS
S is for Sweet
N is for Natural
O is for Open-hearted
W is for Worldly
D is for Dedicated
R is for Romantic
O is for Original
P is for Perfectionist
S is for Special
What Does Your Name Mean?