Siargao Island was a tropical paradise before Typhoon Rai hit it a week before Christmas last year. The island is home to Gladys’ family, a bunch of lovely kind-hearted people who are devout Catholics. Gladys works for me, officially as my Personal Assistant, although we have never met in person. Her office is in Cebu but I have never been to Cebu. She assists me in my business which is located in Adelaide but she has never set foot in Australia. That is the power of the internet. She can carve out a nice career and support her family from the comfort of a room in her flat over 5,200 km away from me assisting me in my work. She has been doing that for over seven years. Isn’t that amazing?
When she told me she had lost contact with her family for four days, it was gut-wrenching for me. It would have been a lot worse for her. Four days is a long time to not know if your loved ones are alright or not. Are they safe? Are they bleeding? Bones broken? Is her young daughter OK? Is anyone dead? A worse thought that is best left unsaid, is anyone alive? All she could tell me about her hometown is only gathered from the news. I got more details about the devastation from the internet than from her. Facts on the ground were scant as they were without electricity in the aftermath of the storm. The sandy beaches were no more. A popular destination for surfers and sun-seeking tourists, it was a paradise lost after the storm sliced through the archipelago and zeroed in on Siargao. The devastation reminded me of some scenes in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’. Smouldering remnants of wooden huts, smashed coconut trees, some left standing, recoiling with fear, others littering the beaches like used match sticks strewn in a heap of rubbish. Adults with empty stares hunched in despair, ignoring naked children bawling their eyes out. The images cleverly used by tourism gurus – that of thatched holiday huts and exotic night clubs and bars, swaying coconut trees in the idyllic cool setting of a beach paradise, bronzed well-sculptured hunks and long-haired blondes with hourglass bodies covered by the skimpiest bikinis – were all wiped out by Rai.
Thankfully, Gladys was able to board a ferry from Cebu to find her family unhurt a few days later. She did not share any horrendous stories that my imagination had pictured in my mind. The groaning houses breaking up into smithereens, roaring of the gales, shrieking of the sea, lashing of piercing rain, the tossing of corrugated iron sheets and shattered glass like out-of-control missiles in the air. None of that. Gladys did not witness death, not even the impalement of a bird by a broken branch or a twisted carcass of a village dog under a messy clump of broken palm leaves. Her mama’s bangaray (convenience store) was left mostly standing, and luckily the much needed stock in such desperate times were salvageable. “We are so heartbroken,” Gladys said, regretting that in their province, insuring their properties and businesses was not a “popular” thing to do. She reminded me of my own father who also did not believe in paying insurance premiums to protect his business and house from unforeseen disasters. Insurance premiums are a waste of money in good times, I suppose. Why throw away hard-earned money to bet on a bad event? Maybe Pa believed in the power of positive-thinking. Just believe that bad things won’t happen and they won’t happen? See, insurance is therefore superfluous. Or, maybe he was superstitious. If you think something bad will happen, it will happen. If you think you need insurance, then you will surely meet a disaster that requires compensation. Pa was lucky – in the end, he proved insurance money was dead money. I haven’t been so lucky. The hundreds of thousands of dollars I have forked out in my lifetime will unlikely be recouped. It is rather safe here in South Australia – after all, Adelaide is the home of the Clipsal switch which was invented by Alfred Gerard in 1920. All new houses require safety switches to be installed, so the incidence of fires caused by short circuits are rare these days. God is often described as loving and kind, yet there are, in insurance parlance, acts of God that are not insurable. There are two main fault lines in Adelaide, but our insurance policies do not cover us for earthquakes, acts that are not caused by humans and therefore presumably, only the vengeful God can be held responsible for. In the Bible, God did throw tantrums when he was displeased with humans but luckily so far, God does not throw typhoons at us here. I should reconsider my policy on insurance. The payouts from my insurance policies have been so minuscule it does feel I deserve to be an object of ridicule should I persist in paying these exorbitant premiums.
Gladys sent me good news today. There is a ray of hope after all, after Rai. Things are looking up for her family. They have got back their lives on the rail again. Her dad had worked hard to clean up the mess left by the storm; the photo of him on his way to collect water from the village well showed he was far from being a doddery old man. Despite the calamity around him, he still wore a sugared smile of calm and confidence as he posed for the camera with his bright blue bucket. His white t-shirt had a big hole on the front and the ragged sleeves told me they had seen better days. His old pair of sandals barely covered the dry grey mud that had caked onto his tired feet, but the deep lines on his forehead had vanished and a glimmer of hope had replaced the doubt and fear in his eyes. Gladys told me an anonymous person helped them with a sum of money to rebuild their damaged house on the day the photo was taken. The donation was a sum equivalent to six times her monthly income. The aid was enough to repair their battered house with a brand-new corrugated tin roof and the smashed timber walls are now solid stone blocks. Her mama’s convenience store abutting the left face of the house now has a concrete floor and is rebuilt with new roof trusses. The walls are solidly made of stone blocks and cement built on a strong foundation, giving the building a sense of permanence and purpose, a world apart from the humble wooden hut that was an excrescence foisted on their wooden house.
It is a nice way to end this story by sharing with you how Gladys and her mama celebrated their luck, coming out of the disaster caused by Rai relatively unscathed and wholly intact. “The children and my neighbours send you a thankful message,” Gladys wrote to her anonymous benefactor. “May God bless you and your whole family even more,” she added. My normal utterance of “urghh” to earthlings will be toned down for an extended time, having witnessed the kindness and goodwill shared in her neighbourhood. I wanted to tell her the bloke who extended his hand out to help them surely would not be expecting any special favours or recognition from God but refrained from doing so, in case my insensitive words came across as sour grapes. It wasn’t the time or place to be questioning whether God would bless someone even more for simply doing the right thing. After all, it would not sound like the right thing to do if the kindness he showed had an ulterior motive of benefiting himself. Is helping others for our own selfish reasons (to earn God’s favours) truly helping others? For me, self-serving altruism is exactly what an urghhling would do, performing altruistic acts as a guile to help oneself gain a benefit from God. But after Rai, it feels like there is a ray of hope for the people of Siargao. For them, it is irrelevant to contemplate whether altruism that is self-serving is indeed a good deed.
The solitary chap was walking in the cool depths of the rain forest. He wasn’t stringy but neither was he pursy. He looked fit and strong, his gait sure like a mountain goat’s. He was well attired like a commando in his khaki green long-sleeved military-like garment and black long boots. His black bag strapped from his left shoulder over to his right back could have contained anything. Emergency food supplies, daggers, nunchucks, maybe even a pistol? He had the looks and more importantly, the height and physique to be skilled at hand-to-hand combat. His footsteps could be heard crunching on the hard sunbaked gravel path, which meant he wasn’t worried about being heard. He walked slowly, occasionally looking leftwards out to the mass of green foliage that keeps the old secrets of the hills. Seemingly distracted, the chap was perhaps searching for something or some spiritual sign the hillside may shed. Distant insects screeched incessantly whilst from the thick jungle undergrowth just left of the path, crickets chirped busily. They were not at all disturbed by his presence; they sensed the chap wasn’t boorish, harmless in fact. The jungle was not stirred by his noisy boots, even the cool hillside breeze that normally made the leaves wave an enthusiastic welcome had not appeared. The sun had not lost any of its effulgence, indicating the moon was still may hours from making its entrance in the sky. He was well-liked and well-respected by his peers, a stolid chap whose kindness and generosity shone like a beacon in the dark. Last September, he said he needed a bit more time to pen down his story for inclusion in The Urghhling Marsh book. “Kindly allow me to settle down a bit,” he said, showing his politeness and courtesy. He didn’t need to be blandished or bribed with a payment. He wanted to share his stories with those in the brotherhood. His mother had just passed away and not surprisingly, the pain from the loss would need time to abate. There were lots of stories he wanted to share, so vivid the memory of his dear mother was. The need to communicate his strong love for his family and friends was made more urgent by his recent outpouring of grief. But, in the end, the chap’s final chapter did not include any of his own words. He didn’t get to write them down. So, this chapter is written for him to honour his wish to be included. We called him The Admiral.
In the Water Margin, there are one hundred and eight heroes in the Liangshan Marsh. It would be easy to measure up one of them to The Admiral. Great fighters like Lu Da, Lin Chong, Zhu Tong and Lei Heng are all well-revered leaders of the brigands. Brigands they were, but the Marsh brothers’ much valued virtues of loyalty and justice were beyond doubt. That was what they fought for. The authorities were corrupt, and the magistrates blind to the injustices against the weak. The brigands took the law into their own hands and fought for the common people for the common good. They rid the villages and towns of corrupt officials and in upholding the ways of Confucian teachings, they rebelled against tyranny. Likewise, The Admiral was a highly respected leader in the brotherhood. “A humble, helpful and kind-hearted brother,” Park Moon said. “Judging from his good deeds, he was an exemplary follower of Christ through his magnanimity and humility in reaching out to the poor by distributing food during the pandemic using his own personal funds without expecting anything in return. He is a very fine example of the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” – Mt 5:7,” Aloysius added. Like many in the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood, The Admiral cherished the virtues of justice, benevolence and respect for the righteous. But, unlike The Liangshan Marsh brothers, the Urghhling Marsh brothers did not become outlaws. Wu Yong and Typhoon, fellow brothers of the Marsh, said that although they did not know The Admiral very well, they agreed that The Admiral was a reflective pulse of their community, who exuded warmth, friendliness and kindness. Chip, The Blue Chip, said, “The Admiral’s generosity and friendship was an encouragement to those around him; a fine soul who left too early.” The Cook philosophised when he said “Good people are irreplaceable, and good people tend to leave too soon.”
The Admiral owned a friendly face. His wavy hair was still mostly black and neatly cropped to accentuate its thickness. When he smiled – and it was often – his creased forehead displayed deep lines of a thinker or philosopher. The crow’s feet around his eyes provided proof of his constant smiles and pleasing facial expressions. The rather fleshy, generously-proportioned alae of his nose flared out of a bulbous tip, suggestive of wealth and success according to some sooth-sayers. He had a towering personality and a towering physical presence. A photograph of him and Lord Guan showed both to be of similar build and similar height. We know Lord Guan from an earlier chapter to possess a towering frame and an imposing physical presence, so clearly, The Admiral was an indefatigable champion too. Who amongst the one hundred and eight heroes of the Water Margin was The Admiral comparable to? The penultimate chapter in the book revealed that character to be General Zhang Qing.
General Zhang Qing was a magnificent military man. Known as the ‘Featherless Arrow’ for killing or stupefying his adversaries by throwing stones at them, Zhang Qing was an unbeatable foe. After the brigand’s leader, Chao Gai, was shot by Shi Wengong, his dying command was that whoever avenged his death would succeed him. It was Lu Junyi who eventually captured Shi Wengong, but Lu Junyi, a new recruit to the brotherhood, declined the post in deference to the senior leadership team. So, the brotherhood decided the contest for the leadership would be between Song Jiang who was the acting leader and Lu Junyi. Whoever was first to conquer the prefecture assigned to him would be chosen as their chief leader. Song Jiang won the contest and became the rightful leader; Lu accepted the position of Second-in-Command as he could not defeat the defender of Dongchang Prefecture, General Zhang Qing. The ‘Featherless Arrow’ would go on to defeat fifteen of the brigand’s leadership team in an hour, reminiscent of the legendary fighter Wang Yanzhang who defeated thirty-six generals in approximately one hour, during the Five Dynasties (A.D. 907). In the final chapter, the book revealed that General Zhang Qing, upon witnessing Song Jiang’s generosity towards him, by then a defenceless defeated foe, who not only prevented his fellow brothers from exacting revenge for their injuries sustained by the stones hurled at them, but also apologised and saluted him for his bravery in defending the Prefecture he was assigned to so ferociously. The final chapter in the book described the ceremonial induction of all one hundred and eight heroes into the Loyalty and Justice Hall. Song Jiang proposed that they held a big ceremony to pray for those who had died in their battles for justice and secondly, to seek forgiveness from the Song Emperor by offering their services to him. So was achieved this assembly of brigands who turned themselves into heroes to serve their country faithfully and fearlessly in the name of justice. A perfect ending to a great story, but unfortunately, the final chapter of this legendary tale was very different from the ending in the book that was translated by JH Jackson. The final chapter as written by Shi Naian had a terrible ending. The Song Emperor, after granting the Marsh outlaws amnesty, cleverly used them to suppress rebellions, knowing this was a rewarding way to get rid of these rebels whom he did not trust or appreciate. Many of the Liangshan heroes, fifty-nine in total, died suppressing the Fang La rebellion, including General Zhang Qing. Song Jiang and Lu Junyi were both poisoned by officials of the State but to prevent his men from retaliating and rebelling once more, Song Jiang ordered Li Kui to poison his most loyal follower, Black Whirlwind. When Wu Yong discovered Song Jiang had died, he hanged himself and was buried beside Song Jiang’s tomb. Death was the price of loyalty.
The final chapter of The Urghhling Marsh unfortunately sees the deaths of two brothers this week. Rest in peace, brothers Albert Poh and The Admiral, Ch’ng Cheng Hoe. Albert Poh was also well-loved and well-respected in the brotherhood. The band leader of Rhythm Beats, his musicianship was known and cherished throughout the community. His story will remain unwritten, as it was his expressed wish to keep a low profile in life, and therefore out of respect for him, his death shall also be kept private. Death is part of life, as is falling leaves in autumn. Some say we are only truly dead when we are totally forgotten. In the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood, no one will be forgotten for their stories and therefore their memories will live on. The Liangshan Marsh brothers pledged their eternal loyalty and fraternity to each other. Their oaths were made by drinking wine mixed with their blood. In the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei made a similar oath in a peach garden.
We may not be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. But, let us die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year.
Murray can’t read. He is a smart dog but he is illiterate. So, we don’t follow the signs during our walks. I swear it’s the truth when I say he may recognise a few words. Otherwise, why would he pee on the post that said ‘No Dogs Allowed’ at the entrance to a grand old private property? You’ll have to forgive him, he hates being left out or singled out. Like me, he hates being discriminated. No dogs allowed? Teach them, Murray. You may piss on their post. He never attended lessons on how to read and interpret road signs. If he did, he would surely protest at why there are road signs for kangaroos, koalas and wombats but none for dogs. There’s even a sign for sharks. Isn’t that discrimination? He ignores me even when I tell him the dark, brooding clouds are just ahead of us; even when heaven is spitting at us, Murray will ignore the signs of impending rain and continue ahead. Nothing seems to stress him, honestly. Yesterday, I quailed as a big Great Dane ran at high speed towards us from a distance. I must confess that I took a few steps back, putting Murray between The Great Dane and me. Luckily, it only walked around me once but decided to smell Murray’s butt instead. Murray seemed to enjoy the experience – I know because he was wagging his tail. True tale. If a great Dane or German or whatever bloke from whichever country rushes over to smell my butt, I would be wagging my finger and crying out “Rape! Rape!” Murray reads the signs wrongly, I am sure. How can he treat that as a sign of friendliness when his butt is being examined at close range by a strange dog?
I have lived here in this leafy eastern suburb of Adelaide for twenty odd years. But, it is only following Murray and not following the signs that I have discovered many interesting places close to my house. He even led me to Undelcarra, the original stone cottage that was built in 1848 by one of the earliest settlers in South Australia, a Scottish farmer by the name of Peter Anderson. In 1876, the house and 30 acres were sold to Simpson Newland – much of the estate is now named after him. Yesterday, Murray took me to a small white cottage that sits on a rather large and very beautiful corner of a reserve a mere 12-minute walk from home. There are no signs to lead me to this gem of a place. It is just off busy Glynburn Road which was a quiet road with just the occasional car spluttering exhaust fumes when we first arrived here. It was more suited for a horse and carriage, I thought at the time. A slow “klop, klop, klop” sounding off a cobblestone path would have been perfect. Big old deciduous trees line along it to provide a lush green canopy in spring and summer and colour it golden in autumn. The small cottage is well hidden from view, so idyllic is its location. It is only 10 minutes by car to the CBD of Adelaide, yet you would think it is in woop-woop, away in the sticks, if you look at the photo. The cosy stone cottage with a section of bricks painted white, from a distance, beckoned me to walk closer. The white French windows further emboldened me to approach them. I like everything French, especially my L’Occitane body lotion. The grey Colorbond roof matches nicely with a cloudless blue Adelaide sky that hangs a great distance away in heaven, in stark contrast to the low threatening skies often weighed down by grey moody rain clouds that frequent places such as London and Penang. The homestead is hugged by mature gum trees not quite a stone’s throw away in the front and in the far rear, two old trees rise majestically a third way up the sky. A man was tending to the garden of agapanthus, lost in his world of deep green fleshy leaves and vivid blue flowers. I deliberately scrunched hard at the thick carpet of brown fallen leaves – a sacrifice made by the gum trees to welcome our summer – but the noise I made did not stir the man. I was hoping to ask him if his property was for sale but I could read the signs very well. He was beset by a paroxysm of coughing and wheezed heavily before resuming his tender caring of the agapanthus around him. He was fully absorbed in his garden, oblivious to the sounds of a stranger nearby and his obvious disinterest with my presence and time spent admiring his secret paradise told me he wouldn’t be a seller. He didn’t have a care in the world.
In my everyday life, signs are very important to follow. I’ve known for many years when to switch off the TV during The Ashes. Somehow the soothing voice of Richie Benaud during Australia’s summer in the 1980s and 1990s was an unfathomable trigger for The Mrs To transform herself into an emotional wreck. It still baffles me that the sound of Aussie summer which my eldest son and I thoroughly enjoyed had such a strong hold on her mind. She found both Benaud’s and Tony Greig’s voices monotonous and annoying, especially on hot late afternoons when what she rather preferred I did was to water her precious garden. I wasn’t alert to the helpful signs that she was throwing at me for many summers until the day she told me grown men with beer bellies should not laze around at home watching cricket when they had better reason to be helping with garden chores. That day, I found her voice much less soothing than Richie Benaud’s but I knew to read the signs that told me to bite my tongue. There was this dark cloud hovering just over her head, see? I told The Mrs both great men of cricket taught me their sport was the best game to follow, but The Mrs gave me the finger sign instead. Maybe she didn’t but my conscience sure thought she did. Sometimes, the signs are very encouraging, such as after dinner just now. She put on a rarely seen demeanour, one I hardly remember these days. She grabbed me playfully around my waist with both hands from behind and teased me to visit her garden outside. I had to quickly suck in my extended tummy which was untimely bloated with an extra big serving of spicy fish-head curry and jasmine rice. My mind had to cast back to our courtship days to recall that sweet docile voice she used to coax me to watch her ginger plant grow in the front garden and to admire that single skyward-pointing chabai burong on her chilli plant. “It’s big,” she purred, reminding of the time when she said my, er, ego was big. After that, she tried to coax me to the back garden to watch her tomato plants grow. The signs were safe enough for me to politely decline her invitation. Her diadia voice (嗲嗲) being employed to lure me to her garden indicated her coyness and sudden sweetness. But, watching plants grow isn’t my cup of tea; so I casually walked back to the house and as soon as I was out of sight, I rushed to the TV to watch the 5th Ashes test, live from Bellerive Oval in Hobart.
Whilst watching the movie Dune from my big screen TV, I was intrigued by the planes used by non-Fremen in the planet Arrakis (sounded and looked uncannily like where Iraqis live). I could not resist and paused the film to google to confirm whether these ornithopters could actually fly. I marvelled at how these planes, powered by flapping wings, are actually operable. Science is remarkable when it can copy nature so well. The dragonfly has two sets of wings that work independently, allowing it superior agility in the air. It will still be able to fly should it lose one wing. The wings beat so fast our eyes cannot follow their movement. I enjoy watching futuristic movies, as they often show us a glimpse of what our distant future will be and how science will shape the technology of tomorrow. I was curious to see that the battles being fought did not feature any advanced weaponry. In fact, there were no guns used at all. The warriors were limited to hand combat and the weapon of choice was the humble dagger! The combat scenes were inspired by a Filipino martial arts style known as Balintawak Eskrima. Mind you, the 1965 story written by Frank Herbert is set in the year 10,191. How can there be no guns in Dune? Again, I had to pause the movie and google for the answer! The science theory offered is that advanced technology made high-speed projectiles ineffective against the body shield that uses a force field which works like an electronic barrier. Only a slow-moving blade from close range can penetrate the shield. Any weapon that has a high velocity will be rendered useless. No guns in future, what will the gun lobbyists in America say to that?!
My favourite niece sent me a photo today via WhatsApp. I had not known such a precious photo existed. “Was it from a digital camera or film?” I asked. I didn’t even remember posing for the camera. It was a portentous moment in my life, yet I could not recognise where it was taken. It was clear to me what the occasion was but if not for the photo, a lot of the details would have been lost, so defective is my memory. The year was 2001 when Second Son won the national competition in Sydney, so it had to be a film photograph. None of us could afford a digital camera in those days and the phone camera was not invented until the following year. That makes the phone camera 20 years old! Today, it feels inconceivable that we do not take a photo with our mobile phone at least once in a week, be it a selfie or a photo of our breakfast to prove the endurance of our intermittent fasting regime. Before this breakthrough in science, we did not take photos unless the occasion was special. A special dish in a special restaurant setting would not justify the cost of a film. It had to be a birthday party or someone’s wedding or winning a national competition. Processing film photos was expensive in those days – we had to be discerning of what or who to justify the cost of a photo.
The older I am, the more interested in science I become. Are the signs becoming ever undeniable? Increasingly clearer? With fellow cohorts lisping after losing their teeth, or fumbling in dim light not finding the black buttons on their black remote controls or not knowing how to operate their mobile phones or how to find their vaccine passports in their phone wallet, or staring at things without comprehension of what they do, or seeing old schoolmates alarmingly ageing too quickly and worse, receiving news of ailing friends in hospitals. Looking at the above photo of my two cute little nieces who are both now professional health workers further reinforces the fact that I am already an old man. It is a sobering fact, the signs of which I can no longer ignore. So, maybe I have a newfound interest to look at the advancements of science as a way forward instead. No, it is not for the hope of finding a cure for ageing, I am comfortable about growing old. Years as a gardening hobbyist have taught me to respect the laws of Nature. What grows must eventually mature and die. It is increasingly likely that our longevity can be increased by 20-30 years; not just years but years of healthy life. They call it healthspan rather than lifespan.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already helping us in this new frontier and it is within our reach today to slow or reverse the ageing process. In olden days, kings and emperors drank the blood of young subjects, hoping to stay young or escape death. Today, scientists are attempting to make this hope a reality by successfully transferring blood plasma of fit exercising mice (runners) to old sedentary mice to rejuvenate the organs of the old mice. Amazingly, most of the beneficiary effects of running were transferred to the sedentary mice via the runners’ plasma. The effects on neurogenesis were clearly noticeable, such as improved learning and memory in the sedentary mice.
Other exciting developments in medical sciences include Binah.ai, powered by AI. They recently announced they can measure our blood pressure within a few seconds, by looking at the camera of a smartphone or laptop, i.e. totally contactless. There is also the AI design company Iktos which is partnering with South Korean biotech Astrogen to expedite drug discovery for the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. Iktos’ deep learning generative modelling will speed up the discovery of new therapies.
In the field of nanotechnology, researchers have created a super powerful molecule that will allow them to make more advanced nanostructures (artificial DNA structures) for detecting diseases as well as for treatment of diseases. Also very exciting is the second-generation AI-powered digital pills which aim to improve outcomes and reduce side effects. Examples include digital pills that contain sensors that can pick up internal bleeding or pills with sensors or cameras when swallowed will swell to the size of ping-pong balls so that they do not immediately pass out of our guts but remain in situ in our body for longer. AI can take photos of the patient’s bowels and send it to the medical team as it travels along the gut.
Another device is a corkscrew-shaped microrobot that can swim through blood vessels and unblock blood clots. Its design was inspired by the tails of bacteria such as E. Coli. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong inserted the robot into a synthetic vein filled with pigs’ blood and found it made clot-busting drugs work almost 5 times better than the drug itself.
There is also exciting advancements in refining the effectiveness of deploying CAR-T cells in the fight against cancers. Currently, once they arm killer T cells onto the Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CAR) and release them into our blood, these are amazing at killing cancer cells but unfortunately, they will also kill normal cells that happen to carry the same protein as the cancer cells. That would cause a great deal of carnage to the good cells of the patient – a cytokine storm could lead to multiple organ failure. So, researchers are using synthetic proteins that only activate the CAR in the presence of blue light. Another team is using ultrasound radiation as the on-off switch to control the CAR. Other researchers are working to develop new CARs that function like biomolecular computers, i.e. man-made genetic circuits that are able to independently make logical decisions to attack cancer cells.
In the wearable tech sphere, instead of watches we now can wear a tiny ring on our little finger. The Movano ring tracks users’ health along a wide range of parameters, including sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability, activity, respiration, temperature, and blood oxygen. The ring can improve the wearer’s quality of life by gauging their lifestyle and their resultant health consequences more accurately. In the brain mental health area, there is a new development by iSyncwave. It is a comprehensive EEG solution (hardware-software-remote telehealth solution) that can screen the brain and use deep-dive predictive analysis to detect not only neuro-related diseases but also potential mental conditions in just 10 minutes. It does this by integrating both EEG brain mapping and LED therapy.
Another recent news that excites me is researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Cancer Research Centre have identified a way to repair genetic damage and prevent DNA alterations using machine learning techniques. If we understand how DNA lesions originate, AI will find better targeted cancer treatments whilst also protecting our healthy cells. Perhaps the most exciting for me is the project headed by Elon Musk to implant Neuralink chips in human brain. Last year, they successfully inserted a chip into a monkey that controlled its mind to play ‘MindPong’. Musk hopes to get FDA approval later this year to implant his Neuralink chip on a human with severe spinal cord injuries. Sadly, Christopher Reeve died almost two decades ago, otherwise, he might have loved to be considered for this trial. Clearly, the signs are there for science to ultimately triumph and increase our healthspan substantially.
The alluring scent from the room aroused my curiosity. I had never been inquisitive about a fragrance since my Form Six days when the boys in my class clamoured and rushed to the rust-encrusted British Green iron-framed windows to gawk at the girl they called ‘Charlie’. She was so nicknamed simply because one of boys discovered that was the brand of perfume she wore. To this day, I still wonder if she was aware of the disturbance she caused in my class, the frequent disruptions to what our Chemistry teacher was blabbing about very likely resulted in my first red ‘F’ for a test I sat for the following week. I followed the scent into a room. They were two exotic-looking women who were most likely sirens posing for an artist. I immediately thought of Norman Lindsay, the Australian artist famous for his sensual paintings of well-endowed nude female models. The taller one caught my attention first. Inexplicably, my head turned to the right and my eyes, which normally would scan everything in a new place first and be prepared for any surprises, (as taught by John le Carré) just zeroed in towards her. Fair and nubile, her ballerina-like posture and sophistication showed her class. Glamorous and radiant were two words that rang loudly in my mind. (Virginal and sexy were the other two words, but I would hate to divulge that). She wore her lacy silk wimple without draping around her neck and chin, purposefully exposing a deep dark cleavage. I have seen enough Playboy centrefolds to know that a cleavage of that depth can only mean the most perfect curves that hug a pair of close-set full and soft breasts. No, I never had to resort to buying Playboy magazines. My first boss in Adelaide ran a litho laminated packaging business but in 1987, he embarked on paper-recycling and started a short-run box factory in South Australia. As his accountant, I was also responsible for the finances of those two new operations. Stupidly, I proved myself to be super efficient, and therefore missed out on a pay rise. The only fringe benefit for me was the weekly discarded magazines that the men casually dropped on my lap. They mistakenly assumed such magazines would interest me.
The tall lady had a kind sweet face which showed a shyness as if she was not accustomed to see a man appear in front of her. I apologised for the sudden intrusion but my voice did not attract her to look at me. She simply flashed a shy smile, her full lips did not part to reveal her gums and her eyes remained shy. The ripeness and fullness of the persimmons she was carrying, I gathered, were supposed to represent the sweetness and roundness of her breasts. I was later reprimanded by The Mrs for such an absurd interpretation of the imagery. Persimmons simply symbolises good luck and longevity, nothing about lust and sex! It is fair to assume The Mrs was unimpressed with me again. Immediately in front of the siren sat a pot draped in a blue cloth with an old Chinese symbol that meant longevity. Later, I discovered that the pot contained the most exquisite soup fit for royalty. It is named ‘Buddha Jumps Over The Wall’ because the shark fin soup is so delicious that even Buddha would succumb to its temptation. She has to be the empress, I deduced.
Next to the empress must be a princess. She appeared arrogant to me. Head raised to the sky, her nose in the air – she exuded an air of arrogance and superiority, too uppity for me to bother with. She wore a neck piece of blue sapphire and white gold. Her matching blouse was a rather finely woven fabric with the most exquisite inlaid pattern of blue and white. She wouldn’t know it then, but before the week was out, her blouse would have shrunk drastically by more than half to reveal a very lissome frame. She was carrying a red chain of money coins but I knew from their style of dressing that they do not belong to the current era, and therefore those coins could not be Bitcoins. I excitedly told The Mrs, expecting to impress her but she scoffed at me. She told me Bitcoins are not real coins, and they certainly do not jingle and jangle. Although it was true that I could not hear the chink or the clink of the coins, I did not mishear the sounds of the oud wafting in the background. Yes, the oud with its 11 strings. The music that was playing in the room as I stared at the two beautiful women in front of me told me they must be Middle-Eastern. I was wrong, of course. There were ouds in China too. The music I heard was pentatonic and rather mellifluous, the sounds formed a perfect harmony with the picture in front of me. The floral scent in their room soothed my senses. It reminded me of the uplifting fragrance of the delicately perfumed L’Occitane Rose body cream – its floral and rather feminine scent never fails to please me. Just as I was entranced by the captivating scent, I caught a stench of blood and bone intruding the open window in my own living room, courtesy of a wayward wind from the rear garden. Just like that, I was immediately brought back to my present surroundings. A lot had changed since I first cast my eyes on the two women. A week later, I visited them again. So much had changed so fast that I feared for their well-being. Will the empress still be pleasant and pretty? Or has she become haughty, cold and old? Rather than a virginal Eve in the garden of Eden, is she edentulous instead? Does she still own the healthy red full lips or have they turned into a thin line of dried grey skin? Is her face still smooth and fair? It would be sad if that too has been ravaged by the cruelty of time. Would I see wrinkled lines and deep etched scars shirred onto her well-proportioned heart-shaped face? Will liver spots have marred her bare arms and have those slender and porcelain-smooth limbs turned into thin sticks of excessively loose blotchy wrinkled dry skin and bone?
The painting I described above is the first commission work The Mrs accepted. Her patron is Daniel Wong, the owner of Empress Restaurant whose only request was that the painting, which will be hung in his bedroom, must have “beautiful women”. The work is a fine piece of art which tells a story of riches and beauty yet somehow, something is very wrong. The dilapidated walls show major cracks and holes, a clear sign of disrepair that hints that all is not as it seems; their world is literally falling apart and the neglect an indication of their imminent fall from grace. Perhaps, it is the story of life. It is never perfect, even for a royal family. Meghan Markle can surely attest to that. The Mrs took over 30 days to complete her work. Although a “working day” for a retiree is no longer 8 hours, the total amount of time and effort she spent on this is a lot. This week, she started having regrets about parting with her masterpiece as the handover to her patron looms. I suggested it would be nifty to NFT it. She jumped on my suggestion and I think, for once in her life, she did not think I was stupid anymore. “NFT it?” she asked. “Yes, NFT it,” I replied and surprised her with a smile. It dawned on me that the scowl that I wear on my face could be the reason why people around me think poorly of me. My lips are not accustomed to turn upwards and my fierce beady eyes hide my solicitude for people. “We will tokenise your painting,” I continued. By making the file of her painting into a non-fungible token, she will own it on a blockchain, i.e. it will be stored in a distributed digital ledger as an asset that can be sold and resold and which cannot be replicated. “Nifty, right?” you will still own the rights to its digital form, even though the physical painting is sold. It is not just art and music that can be tokenised. In the future, it is very likely that almost anything will be converted to NFT. Anything that the owner does not want to be copied will become an NFT, e.g. the title deed to our house or a page of verified news by a journalist. It can be a certificate of authentication of your Adidas shoes or Hermès bag or a proof of our membership to a football club. A token of Manchester United will allow the holder to special rights to the football club such as voting rights of the next season’s jersey design or an entitlement to special event tickets. These rights will confer value to the owner, and therefore can be sold and resold. The excitement of this revolution of the internet is not unfounded. People call it the Internet of Value or Web 3.0 where the decentralised blockchain technology will deliver exponential growth to not just our world but also to virtual worlds or metaverses. Today I learned that accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prager Metis have bought virtual land and the latter is building a three-storey office building in Decentraland. Even they know they will find clients who need professional accounting advice in the metaverse.
My crypto friends told me we were going to the moon before 2021 was over. “Off to the moon” in crypto means the price will sky-rocket very very high. I joined them for the ride, just to see what the fuss was about. They are a secretive lot. “No, you can’t blog about it.” “And you sure can’t talk about it in your WhatsApp chats!” So, they made me join Signal as a condition of entry into their world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Luckily, there is no requirement to part with my money. I can ill-afford to risk the little bit I have left after the 2008 wipe-out caused by excessive financial deregulation and loose credit lending in the US. But, the ill-disciplined central banks have been printing money since 2020 like they won’t run out of ink and paper. And they won’t, since printing money these days don’t actually involve any printing. Money that is easily ‘made’ without sweat and tears cannot be worth much, I figured. In ancient times, money took the form of seashells, African glass beads, and even buckskins. The Chinese were the first to adopt metal coins and later, paper money. But, those early forms of money required effort to make or find (mine) them. But, today’s money requires a mere nod by lawmakers and central bankers. Since I am already of retiring age, leaving my money to be debased and devalued isn’t a wise option. I joined my crypto friends as a rite of passage to understand what the fuss is about in cryptocurrency. The ancients had five rites of passage. A rite to birthright, rite to adulthood, rite to marriage, rite to eldership and finally rite to ancestorship. I am happy to miss out on this final rite – venerating me when I am the dead won’t do me any good. So, if I may forfeit this final rite of passage please and instead, grant me a passage to understand what the hullabaloo is about crypto. When they told me my passage includes a ride to the moon, I was sold!
They told me Metcalfe’s Law will ensure one Bitcoin will be worth many millions of useless US dollars. If one US dollar is worthless, I could not understand why I would bother with many millions. Anyway, Metcalfe’s Law is worth knowing about, since that is how the likes of Facebook (now known as Meta), Google and Twitter are valued. A computer and telecommunications network’s value rises exponentially as each incremental user in a network adds more value than its own. That is why social media is worth so much to these internet giants. But, a sibling countered Bitcoin is a scam. How can nothing be worth something? From The Sound of Music, we learned nothing comes from nothing. It is not even a physical coin! I asked her to be fair. After all, Meta, Google and Twitter are also merely computer codes. Instagram isn’t a physical thing either. If these computer algorithms can be the world’s most valued creations, then there is a case that Bitcoin can be similarly valued. Bitcoin, after all, is simply a decentralised distributed ledger in a blockchain that is programmed to produce a maximum of 21 million coins. To earn one Bitcoin, a miner has to solve a complex hashing puzzle. Essentially, miners are rewarded with Bitcoin for their work as auditors, using their computers to verify the legitimacy of Bitcoin transactions. These millions of computers can be situated anywhere in the world and that is how the system is decentralised. There is no central authority that controls anyone. To counter the hysterical claims that mining Bitcoin is a waste of energy that only adds to accelerate climate change, miners that left China due to that country’s aversion to decentralised control, have increasingly moved to regions with cheap energy. Electricity that is generated and not used is wasted since we do not have giant batteries to store it. So, why not use it since it is already there? Some clever green miners are converting abandoned cotton mills to use their hydro-electric power to mine Bitcoin.
“Just you wait and see! We are going to the moon,” my crypto pals said almost daily when I joined their group in October 2021. I believed them. After all, El Salvador had just become the first country to make Bitcoin legal tender. “Get off zero,” my pals advised me. Raoul Pal their hero, although not my pal. I thought it would be worth a punt, to get off zero Bitcoin strategy and promptly invested $100 in it after Australia’s biggest bank announced on 3rd November 2021 that they will become the first bank here to buy, sell and hold crypto assets. If the CBA called it an asset, who am I to disagree? A retiree should only hold assets, right? Bitcoin will be worth $98,000 in November and over $135,000 in December, a mysterious bloke who calls himself Plan B said six months ago. Maybe he got the year wrong. Maybe he meant 2022, not 2021. I decided I wasn’t going to the moon after the Bitcoin price got stuck on the band between $47,000-$49,000 for much of December. Instead of going to the moon, I had lost about $20. Officially, that is, since I do not dare tell The Mrs the true extent of my loss. Instead of going to the moon, I decided to go to Moonta to nurse my wound and recover from this mess. A nightmare that is made worse following South Australia abandoning its successful adoption of zero-Covid strategy in November just so Christmas will be a bumper time for the tourism and food services sector, but the reopening of our borders to interstate and overseas friends and relatives has seen a shrinkage in the economy instead as daily Covid cases went from zero to over 2,000 before the fireworks were lit on the last night of 2021.
I had heard of Moonta Bay in 1986 when I first arrived in Adelaide. A colleague in the lithographic business I worked in had just bought a shack off a secluded beach there for about $20,000. Although not a property magnate, I had always been magnetised to waterfront land or land with water views. The first apartment I bought in Coogee had views of the distant sea, which I was thrilled to bits with, as I stood precariously on the edge of the bathtub to catch a glimpse of the blue sea. Similarly, the first house I bought in Little Bay offered some water views too, but the little blue bit of Botany Bay was only visible above the scrawny tops of the Melaleucas if I tippy-toed and looked out from my sister’s bedroom window. I was eager to add to my collection of properties with water views, but Moonta somehow did not attract me enough to visit it in 1986. Maybe, it was because of the fishing trip I had with George Tovo. George took me out fishing one morning in his little tinnie but the tiny little waves were enough to make me queasy that morning. George and I are forgetful pals, he forgot to tell me not to have a big oily breakfast before going out in a little boat. But, I forgot to tell him I could not swim. As I retched out some remains of breakfast, a picture formed in my mind of the next morning’s headlines. “Young Chinese man drowned in calm seas off the jetty.” George’s floppy white hat that was decorated with smudges of blood from worms and guts from other bait reminded me of the scene in On Golden Pond where Henry Fonda often appeared with his clean floppy hat. There was a scene of him fishing with Katharine Hepburn, but the grand old dame of Hollywood was a lot more steady and graceful on her boat than I was in George’s. She was indeed royalty, revered in her leading roles that spanned over 60 years. He was royalty too. George I mean. Recently, he told me his ancestors had ‘some’ royal blood from early German aristocracy. So sorry, George. I may have forgotten to clean up my own mess from the seasickness in your boat. I did not mean to treat you shabbily, my dear old friend, a possible Prince!
We hired a three bedroom cottage that’s just a short walk to the beach from some old women’s club. But the old woman who welcomed us wouldn’t allow us to bring Murray inside. Pets are not allowed! I told her Murray isn’t a pet, he’s my best pal. Anyway, she was steadfast in her refusal and I knew no amount of sweetness from my tongue would sway her. She kept insisting Murray is a dog. Murray panted with his tongue out, that’s why. Anyway, I knew we would outlast the old woman. She couldn’t check on us at night, could she? No worries, Murray. Just be patient, she is old and won’t stay awake till late. We did not pack enough for our Moonta trip. Lil Sis’ hubby told me he had booked the house for three days. Three days equals two nights, right? His three days meant three full days, excluding travel time. Essentially, he meant three nights. Never mind, I just had to flip my undies and socks inside out. The other side is unused, right? I forgot to ask The Mrs if she could wear her bra inside out too. There is a lot to do in Moonta, if you love the sea or enjoy fishing off the jetty. Otherwise, you’d find it boring, especially if you melt easily in days over 36 degrees C. We had three days of true Adelaide summer weather. If you have been overwhelmed when you open your oven door to check on your roast, then you will know what a typical Adelaide summer’s day is. Yes; hot, dry and energy-sapping, and you’ll burn quickly if you’re not careful. Be stoic, I remind myself. We can’t change the weather, we can’t change the fact that in a seaside town, there is only swimming and fishing to occupy us. So, change our attitude instead. We played mahjong on the second day. A short stint, Ma said, even though the four rounds of North, South, East and West lasted six hours! We were amazed Ma still beat us at the game. Inside that skull that is thinning of white hair is a brain that still works. Even though she was easily confused about our playing turn being anti-clockwise and counting of where to start each game is clockwise after throwing the dice. Even though she was frequently short of a tile. No matter, here Ma, have another tile! No use complaining about things we can’t change. It is the same as trying to change how people think of us, or change how people see crypto as a safe form of investment for retirees. Although I had brought two good books to read, I decided my time was better spent with my 98-year-old mother. Of course, Ma is now not only fragile, she is also sometimes senile. Of course, Ma is now forgetful and getting her facts wrong. But, in many cases, when she talks about her past, how do we know for sure that her memory is wrong? We weren’t there! She talked about a mysterious Madam Hu I never met and that Madam Hu’s husband’s sister was also a Hu. “No! That’s not possible,” one of us decried. We were’t there, why do we eliminate the possibility of inbreeding? Was it so far-fetched in those days to marry someone with the same surname? Pa had three surnames. It was the same name but pronounced differently in different dialects and therefore spelt differently when anglicised. I didn’t like my odds of choosing the right girl-friend diminished because of that. I refused to accept I couldn’t have a girlfriend who had the same surname as mine!
On the penultimate day of 2021, we went to Drakes to get some extra food for our New Year’s Eve party. After a fantastic lunch, the rest went to get the replenishments, whilst I sat on a bench outside the building and kept Ma occupied with idle chatter. Lunch was fish and chips, garfish was the common choice to keep the tab down. But, I pounced on the fact that Big Sis was paying, and ordered King George whiting for myself. All my life, I have had King George only on two previous occasions. Life is short, I decided. And since someone else is footing the bill, why not spoil myself? I justified it by ordering two serves of fish, one for Ma and the other one without chips, for me. So, I saved $6 and didn’t feel guilty about ordering the best fish. No one will criticise me, after all, it’s for Ma! Luckily, my best friend in school who now lives in Hong Kong and is most critical of me whenever I enjoy a free meal or a free gift, was not present to chastise me. Sometimes, I think he imagines himself to be a super man, so super is his self belief. The others were taking too long, and I could see Ma melting quickly. If you have ever struggled to lick an ice-cream faster than it melting, then you will understand my feelings at that moment. Rotating the ice-cream cone to lick every droplet of melting cream that is succumbing to the force of gravity was intense and unforgettable, not for the pleasure derived but for the sheer panic to avoid wasting the pleasure itself. It is a strange phenomenon – the moment when we somehow realise we are talking to ourselves. I was maundering away about the weather and why old people should not complain when reminded to keep themselves hydrated. Suddenly, I felt I had lost my audience. Sure enough, Ma was wearing a blank smile and a distant stare. “Are you ok, Ma?” I asked urgently. “Huh huh,” she chuckled. I gently shook her arm to make sure, but it was soon apparent to me Ma’s mind was already somewhere else, perhaps on her way to the moon. What was I thinking of? The heat, stooopid! The others had taken too long, longer than I had anticipated. I was clever to avoid going inside the air-conditioned building to practise social-distancing but too dumb to move to a cooler place. There is no cooler place. So, Ma melted and I was frantically trying to save her like she was melting ice-cream. A woman rushed across the road, unaware there was not a single car on the road, to check on us. She saw me “hitting an old woman” and was concerned for Ma’s safety. She told me she is a nurse, but nurses aren’t allowed to hit their patients, even if it is to wake them up from a stupor. She rushed back to the pub and in a flash, she was back with ice cubes and serviettes. She shoved down a cold and damp bundle down Ma’s blouse without asking for her patient’s permission. I copied her and did the same down Ma’s back but got told off later when Ma had her senses back. See? We only tell off our loved ones, whilst strangers who really do not matter in the big scheme of things, are treated more kindly. A real injustice – Ma thanking the stranger but reprimanding me – her son – for the same action. Ma, at the height of her discomfort, treated me like soiled nappies. How dare I push ice down her back! The nurse introduced herself as Michelle and started having a conversation with Ma. Remarkable! She even praised Ma for her broken English. I speak well, with a good diction but got no praise from Michelle. See the injustice of the world? Michelle was without her wimple and white uniform but all the same, she came across like an angelic damsel to a damsel in distress. Thank you, Michelle.
Later that afternoon, I decided to cool off whilst Ma rested in bed. Off the jetty on Moonta Bay, is a caged area to keep sharks out. The water is almost still, with a light breeze coming to shore from the Antarctic to cool us down. Nature’s air-conditioning system works, as long as urghhlings do not tamper with it. The caged area spans about 100m out to sea and is about 500m wide, too wide for a weak swimmer such as myself to cover. Lil sis’s hubby assured me it is very safe, “only ankle-high deep.” After awhile, I discovered the water is cooler towards the centre of the shark-free zone where the dark patch of reeds is heaviest. It crossed my mind it was deeper than “ankle-deep” but heck, there were many kids there having a great time. People, one thing I learned that day. Do not test the depth of the sea with your feet! I went straight down! My legs could feel the seaweed but they did not step on land. People, another thing I learned that day. Do not panic in the water when you are a poor swimmer! Suddenly, I was madly kicking but my strong kicks were longer moving my body forward. PANIC! A picture flashed in my mind. The next day’s headlines. “Old Chinese man drowned in calm seas off the jetty.” Maybe that’s the only way I was going to get to the moon. From Moonta. I tried hard but failed in my attempt to surreptitiously leave the scene. “Happy New Year,” I wished them like a happy Santa would as some of the little kids stared at me like I was an alien from the moon. How would a wan-looking grown-up look like to them, with his long hair crumpled in a messy heap, flailing his long puny arms madly and kicking wildly like a chook that just had its throat slit, but all the while frenetic yet remaining stationary amidst the white splashing water in the middle of a rather calm corner of the sea?
Today is Boxing Day. As a frustrated shopkeeper, I used to think Boxing Day is the day to box up unwanted gifts and return them to the shops. Why was I frustrated? Ok, pitiful then. That’s right. After unaccountable hours serving customers in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the pitiful shopkeeper had only the one day to rest and relax with his loved ones on Christmas Day. Did he not wish to take a short holiday somewhere with his young family? Of course, he did. Did he not wish to follow The Boxing Day cricket, especially against the Poms? Of course, he did. Did he not wish to spend precious time with his ageing parents? Of course, he did. Did he not secretly wish to pick up a book to read, or pick up his dusty violin? Of course, he did. Yet, he didn’t do all that. Not when his kids were still young. Not when his Mrs still welcomed his playful flirtations. Not when his loving Pa was still alive. No. Instead, he was obliged to return to the shopping centre to man his shop. The frightful memory in his mind was the queue already forming in front of his store even before he had a chance to unlock the door and turn on the shop lights. Can you imagine the poor shopkeeper being accosted by impatient customers? Unreasonable customers? Abusive rednecks? They weren’t as scary as angry housewives though. “You sold me a dud!” screams one obese woman. In that suburb, almost everyone was obese. It’s the demographics of the population in that area, I suppose. Lower income, lower level of education, broken family structure, bad health and terrible hygiene, and dare I say, some racism. “I don’t want your Made-in-China crap! Just gimme my money back!!” another yelled. “What mint condition? The model car was broken before we opened the box,” another young mother exclaimed. Young mother, therefore young child. You do not give an expensive collectible car model to a young child! “I JUST WANT A REFUND.” “NO, I DO NOT WANT AN EXCHANGE!” “GIMME BACK MY MONEY, OR ELSE!” “My child is autistic, please give him back his money,” a more persuasive mother used her charm on the shopkeeper. “Just you wait, I’ll bring Today Tonight here!” The shopkeeper didn’t appease his customer when he suggested she called 60 Minutes. There are so many miserable people around. This is Christmas!
Today, the shopkeeper no longer runs a shop. He is finally relieved of the bullying tactics used by shopping centres. He used to run shops in all the Westfield centres in Adelaide. They taught him the true meaning of ‘professional’. They sold him the concept of shopping malls being professionally managed. Being professional meant they did not have any moral conscience. They didn’t have to be human, they were professionals. What they actually meant was their profession could hide behind their office door and use the law to subjugate the poor shopkeeper who was typically bereft of money to fight them in the courts for falsely claiming high foot traffic which justified their obscene rents. It would not be beneath some professional managers to pay trolley boys to continually use the doors where the counters are located. Anyway, this year’s Christmas was the quietest for me. The only tradition I kept was having a piece of panettone for breakfast and just with The Mrs and our eldest son. Oh, Murray attended too, although he told me panettone is not one of his favourite foods. The dog gave it a sniff and turned away. Body language even humans understand. There were no parties, no drinking till I was stupid, and therefore, no awkward moments. It is actually quite easy to avoid awkward moments anyway. Just refrain from topics concerning China, politics, religion and crypto assets. The State Premier, in his eagerness to reopen the economy, invited the coronavirus into South Australia. From zero cases in the community for almost all year, we now have rampant cases that have caused ambulances to be ‘ramped’ outside the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The bottle-neck is due in part to the poor design of the brand-new ‘world-class’ $2.8 billion hospital but the number of C-19 positive cases also exhausted capacity. So, it is no surprise to hear restaurants and holiday resorts complaining of mass cancellations. Given the explosion of cases, Christmas was cancelled. We only had a gathering of sorts in the metaverse with two sons who could not come home. Well, we could see one another, laugh, chat and even react to happenings in the background. They even commented about the beautiful roses behind me. They weren’t here in my ‘real world’, yet they were present in my life. Isn’t this the metaverse?
Boxing Day originated in the U.K. during a time when some wealthy folks used to box up presents for their workers who only returned to their families the day after Christmas Day chores were done. Today, of course, it is quite often about boxing up gifts to return to the shops. People have become more miserable, less thoughtful. The art of giving is as diminished as the art of receiving. A senior member of the management team of my online business decided not to show up at our Christmas-do on Christmas eve. He used C-19 as the pretext for not turning up, but that is as lame as saying he couldn’t come because a Typhoon may blow its way here from the Philippines. It’s a Christmas party for staff only, yet his excuse was that he didn’t want to risk catching Covid at the party. Bah humbug indeed! The truth was he was sore at the bonus I gave him. The art of receiving is surely lost when a guy complains and sulks at a bonus. True, it was half of what he got last year. If a bonus is an expectation, then he ought to have expected less. There have been many instances of performance reviews where he rated poorly. Established procedures and protocols were still missed on too many occasions, despite the many reminders. Why would he expect a big bonus when some mistakes he recently made were quite costly? He ‘Slacked’ me a message to complain that he felt he deserved more. I suppose that’s indicative of my ‘open door policy’ where anyone can come to me with any complaints, ideas or opinions. But, what happened to the Christmas spirit? It was still a nice bonus. After all, any bonus by definition, is a bonus! There are so many things wrong with the world, but receiving a bonus surely cannot be a reason to be unhappy about. Urghhlings. People close to me here are also often unhappy about this or that, or about him or her. They seem to think they have the power to change other people or at least change how other people should react to them. The simple answer of course, lies within ourselves. We only have the power to change ourselves or change how we react to other people or to the circumstances that challenge our peace. Life is long, if we use it properly. “We don’t receive a short life, we make it so,” Seneca said. We squander it by neglecting to do the right things and focusing on the wrong things. Negative thoughts, toxic comments, frivolous habits, unhealthy practices only destroy our peace and harm our mind and body. Are we committed to unnecessary things such as overblown mortgages and foolish obligations? Pernickety is, in my opinion, a waste of our time, therefore a waste of life. Those who engage in the painful habit of insisting on painstaking nit-picking chores are difficult to live with. Why do they focus on trivial matters, on irrelevance? I am reminded of the time when I was asked to nip off the tails of bean sprouts or clean birds-nests. The time I wasted to enjoy a ‘crunchy’ texture of bean sprouts and the time to pick fluff and feathers from swallows’ nests to enjoy ‘good health’ – were they well spent? No. So what if I have enjoyed the ‘Caviar of the East’? Do we occupy our minds with complaints and waste time arguing with people? Don’t we feel etiolated after an episode of verbal sparring with someone annoying? Do we tell our boss we are displeased with the Christmas bonus? What happened to the spirit of Christmas, the season of giving, good cheer, and goodwill towards all? For me, Christmas is a time to practise the art of giving and also to remember the art of receiving. There are so many who are so much worse off than us.
It is a disgrace in this life when the soul surrenders first whilst the body refuses to.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.29
Four days ago, Gladys, my staff in the Philippines, asked me if she could have an early Christmas. It had not dawn on me that the typhoons that I briefly heard in the news had also affected her. By then, she had already reached the end of her tether. She had not heard from her family in Siargao for four days. FOUR DAYS! Can you imagine being in such a frantic state of mind? Not being able to contact your loved ones knowing a disaster had hit their town or village? The desperation of not knowing. The panic in your whole being that there is nothing you can do? The frantic search for news about her baby girl? Her mum and dad? The unsaid worry about their well-being? Are they even alive? Meanwhile, you prepare to find a way home. Pay the exorbitant last-minute air fares. Gladys lives in Cebu, but even there, they were not spared by the typhoon. The internet was down in many places – I did not ask if that was due to blackouts from fallen electric poles or broken cables. Cebu is about 11 hours by ferry to Siargao, but who would dare use the ferry in a typhoon season? You read about the millions displaced and homeless, that people were without water and bare necessities such as food, the disruption to law and order, and hospitals. You worry about your child, is she alive? Even if she did survive the carnage, can she cope with the diseases that will come? How about the hunger that will come? The exploitation that always come to further cripple their meagre existence? People with power will always exploit the weak and poor. Cops, mobs and politicians – these are the ones with power in a crisis. Thankfully, Gladys reported two days before Christmas, that everyone in her family has survived Typhoon Rai, a Category 5 storm. Millions of children have become homeless, hundreds dead but those alive remain vulnerable. There is always the risk of water-borne disease spreading. This time round, they have another more lethal disease lurking about – it is a debilitating thought to consider these poor sods have to cope with the pandemic during a time when the social system is broken. Food security and personal security are foremost in Gladys’ mind – her child’s disrupted education will be a worry for next year. Her family’s home is totally wrecked, her hometown a ghost town. At the same time, many friends in Malaysia were also sharing heart-wrenching images of the massive floods in Selangor and Pahang. There is so much misery everywhere that we have to wonder why God would take a holiday during this holiday season. Ok, don’t blame God, blame climate change – that’s man-made and only urghhlings should fix it. Besides, God can’t take a holiday, so many are attending Christmas mass to pray or ask for favours. Sorry, I have maundered again about people troubling God incessantly just because He is omnipresent. I still maintain there should be a rest and relaxation time for everybody and every soul. If we burn ourselves out, how do we expect to perform to a high standard? Can we produce an amazing breakthrough in our area of expertise? A scientific discovery? A technological advantage? A miracle? Since God rested on the seventh day, as the good book says, isn’t that telling us He needs to rest too?
Gladys’ family is OK, that’s the main thing. Their family house is totally destroyed. Her mother’s small business stall is blown away. They feel totally helpless, not knowing how to rebuild. “How do we start again,” she asked. Corrupt officials in the local government are diverting donations from other countries into their own pockets. Local businesses are price-gouging, necessities cost double, triple the prices. Every battler is struggling, yet they are being preyed on. On Christmas Eye, Gladys sounded more upbeat after I told her to let me know if she needed financial help. “There’s an old Chinese saying, when it’s freezing cold, do not disturb your blanket, just stay still inside the warmth,” I told her. “Keep calm, in times of crisis, do not make rash decisions,” I said. Gladys told me she has some savings, which will be used to support her family for their food and other necessities. She will need financial assistance to rebuild their house using recyclable materials and can they start their small business again? Her mama said that their barangay was gone – people there are desperate for rice, water, even canned goods, other essentials and shelter. The situation there is “like really back to zero and the government there is moving so slowly regarding relief operations, and a few people have died due of dehydration and diarrhoea.” It makes sense for her mama to quickly reopen her barangay and sari-sari store since the demand for rice, water and basic essentials is so high. “Yes, we only have each other as a community now. We can’t rely on the government, we have to help each other,” her mama said. That was awe-inspiring. For someone to be so utterly destroyed, yet is still finding ways to help others in her community is remarkably stoic and kind. After Rai, I found the ray of hope I was looking for.
I have been back to my usual saturnine self this whole week. Last week, I wrote about Rusalka’s song to the moon by Antonin Dvorak, and connected the opera to some of my close friends’ enthusiasm about going to the moon! “We are very early!” they have been chiming in like a new meme, yet it does not seem to register in their ageing minds that their next phrase “We are going to the moon!” is as contradictory as saying you will find the American flag on the moon because Armstrong’s moon landing was faked. It is as contradictory as my childhood complaint to my mother about the eye-watering agony from the joss sticks as she dragged me to the smoke-filled temple, “Ma, why do we need to go? No one goes to the temple anymore because it is too crowded.” It is said that those who have already invested in Bitcoin are ‘very early’ in the crypto space and can be likened to when football players are still relaxing in their locker rooms, not quite ready to walk out to the stadium where the floodlights had just been turned on. The national anthem won’t be sung for awhile yet, and the crowd hasn’t settled down in their seats because they are still queuing to buy their beers. ‘Going to the moon’ in cryptocurrency terms simply means the price of the coin is rising like a long green candle in the charts. Can they be early yet have the rockets to take them to the moon? Compared to some of them, I am quite pusillanimous, my money is still far away from my mouth. I ain’t about to put my money in my mouth even though investing in crypto feels right. The Aussie dollar keeps weakening against the USD, and my savings is still stuck in the bank earning less than one miserable percent per annum whilst the government is openly stealing my money using inflation as a means to whittle away the purchasing power of my money. For the whole of my adult life, I have been conditioned to believe that inflation is good as we need it to grow our economy. But, I now understand inflation is the root cause for global warming or climate change. Our “inflationary monetary system” is based on debt which therefore requires inflation to help pay for it. As Jeff Booth taught me, ‘Ever higher prices (inflation) require more production, more consumption, more transportation, more energy, more government spending. More, of everything, Forever!’ More consumer spending, more inflation, therefore more global warming. Now, you understand why I feel down. Diligently separating my rubbish into three different bins at home suddenly feels futile. No bull, there is no way we can beat inflation! It is embedded in every government policy by every government in the world.
Undoubtedly, my ageing friends’ arguments are sound. The indisciplined loose monetary supply policy world-wide has resulted in the predictable debasement of currencies and high inflationary pressures in most countries. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen blames consumer spending for high inflation instead. It is true, the higher the demand, the higher prices go up. She is supposedly a macro economics expert yet she won’t connect the dots and say it’s the government’s policy of giving the people easy money that has led to more spending? The US inflation figure is now the highest since 1982, at 6.8% but she won’t tell you that is a lot less scary than the real figure. You see, they keep redefining what CPI is by changing the basket of goods and services and seasonally adjusting it month-to-month. ShadowStats using the same methodology prior to 1980 show the real inflation in the US is at 15%. My friends are therefore bullish about Bitcoin (BTC). No bull, they reckon that is the only way to protect our savings. The only asset class that will hold its true value and appreciate over time. Sure, Bitcoin is volatile. Very! It is volatile in the short term but goes up in value in the long run. Fiat currencies may be stable in the short term but devalue markedly in the long run (sometimes even in the short run). Look at the Lebanese pound and the Turkish lira this year. Even the USD has devalued by a lot, despite its strength against many other currencies. The other central banks have also been madly expanding their money supply therefore making them worth less. At the start of 2021, we needed USD29,358 to buy one BTC. Today, it takes about USD48,000 to buy one. No bull, BTC may be volatile, but its price is very bullish. Its adoption by major institutional investors and countries will only see its value surge even more early next year.
My mood turned dark mid-week after being chastised again. This time it was about my reputation for openly enjoying freebies but “you don’t give freebies,” the friend chided me. I simply replied I am too old to multi-task. I can’t give and receive at the same time! Another friend sarcastically said, “He gives anonymously!” Being anonymous means there is no way for me to substantiate it or disprove it. I have often said we give because giving gives us pleasure and makes us feel good. No doubt, our gift brings joy or relief to the receiver but giving also makes the giver feel good about themselves. In other words, ultimately the act of giving is also for selfish reasons. This is further supported by the good book in which the theme about giving freely is that we will grow richer and God will love us more. Another friend who clearly enjoys hitting me below the belt, asked why I am so stubborn like a bull. “Why can’t you give generously?” he asked, quite obviously insinuating that I do not. So, I merely growled softly revealing my saurian teeth. Grrrrr…. a pity he missed my gnashed smile. The Mrs’ younger sister, ages ago, advised me to be insouciant and learn to ignore negative remarks about me, but no bull, growling under my breath is the best I can do.
Last night, my indolence very quickly evaporated. I had been languid all day – maybe it was the summer heat that finally got to me. Even Murray, my son’s dog, cut short the afternoon walk that he normally looks forward to. No bull, he is given total freedom and can roam as far as he wants. He is leashed of course, but he walks in front and I follow obediently. I never complain. I am actually thankful to him for bringing me to the places around my neighbourhood that I never knew existed, despite the 25 years living in this small suburb. Yesterday, we quickly returned home without detouring across the main road or snaking our way along serpentine streets that hug lush green parks. Murray was contented to gnaw at a bone instead. No bull, he is one smart dog and I know I won’t go astray by simply following him. There is no further need to read about Buddhism. We have found the secret of contentment. He ate his bone and I ate my peanuts in the shady corner of the neighbour’s synthetic putting green. Side by side. Hot as it was, Murray made sure a part of his body was in contact with mine.
No bull, the ‘Ole Bull I ordered in February this year has finally been made. Hand made, to be precise. It is a very fine copy of the 1744 Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù ‘Ole Bull’. I can’t believe my luck, but the great Paolo Vettori of Florence somehow agreed to make it for me. For me! He normally is too busy to accept commissions from amateur players – after all, he has a long queue of professional musicians wanting his instruments. I am not even good enough to call myself an amateur player these days. A wannabe amateur player, maybe. The photos of my violin came last night and brought me back to life even though I was ready for bed. I am still so chuffed by it. It looks as beautiful as the real thing. The real thing was of course made by one of the greatest luthiers in Cremona. Even the varnish is yellow-orange, its richness and tender quality like the real thing. I love the yellow-orange varnish on the darkly oxidised colours of the wood’s grain, and the golden tint in the varnish seem to emphasise the exquisite grain even more. The two-piece back is simply gorgeous, even the stripes are reminiscent of the original. Its beauty is further accentuated by the rounded and voluptuous outline. The purfling may not be ebony; my son said it is more likely stained black willow strips. The core, usually made of poplar, is tight and not obvious. The wood of the top board was an antique beam of spruce from an old mansion. Dendrochronology dates the tree rings of the wood to the year 1600. The beautiful back, sides and ribs are from maple wood purchased in 2005 and seasoned in their workshop for 16 years. I love the fleur-de-lis, but not on a violin, and luckily there isn’t one on mine. I knew there wouldn’t be one on its back, because the original doesn’t have one! It is marvellous that instruments of such quality are still made today, the standard of this one is as fine as any in the great history of violin-making. (I may have inadvertently revealed my bias here.) The geometry and symmetry of the scroll already show the great attention to craftsmanship, its spontaneity and flare can only come from a hand that has great control to cut with such tremendous freedom and boldness. Bravo, Paolo! A modern-day master of the finest quality, Paolo Vettori is certainly not at all dwarfed by the giants in the art of violin-making. I think in a few hundred years from now, Paolo Vettori will be comparable to the great makers such as Antonio Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The real thing today sits in the Chi Mei museum after the foundation acquired it in 1992. The ‘Ole Bull is believed to be the last violin made by Guarneri del Gesù who is reputed to be the greatest violinmaker since Stradivari. It once belonged to the famous Norwegian violinist, ‘Ole Bull (1810-1880). Bull was a highly successful composer also, but as Robert Schumann once wrote, he was famous as one of the greatest violinist of all during his time. Bull was also a skilful luthier (he studied with JB Vuillaume in Paris) and had a great collection of instruments by Amati, da Salo, Guarneri and Stradivari. But, he often performed with his favourite, the Guarneri that would eventually be named after him.
No bull, isn’t this the most gorgeous instrument ever? This is a fine piece of art. The best investment I have ever made. That anyone can make. What better way to protect the value of our savings than to invest in a work of art that will only grow in value? At the same time, we get to appreciate the magnificent craftsmanship of the luthier! No bull, forget about the bit about Bitcoin above. This is to me, the best form of investment. After all, what are the important features or properties of money? Durability – a fine stringed instrument such as this beauty is durable – people will always want to make beautiful music from a beautiful instrument. Portability -it is portable, as proven by soloists and musicians as they travel with their instruments to all corners of the world performing in concert halls, outdoor venues and recording studios. Such pieces of art are also finite – the wood that is necessary to produce the sound quality that these instruments are famous for become rarer and rarer as the forests disappear. Scarcity is a very important character of money, if not the most important. Above all else, these fine instruments produce the most sonorous tones and in the good hands of a performer, the exquisite sounds will pull heartstrings and make us feel alive. Music that is cathartic can be healing and music that is exciting and happy can change our moods much more positively than money ever can. That’s no bull. I feel I am so lucky and blessed to be given this chance to own one. Thank you, Paolo, from the bottom of my heart. For more information about the Vettori family, visit https://www.vettorifamily.com/
Last weekend, The Mrs and I were invited to the Lee’s for a scrumptious lunch. We have known Lee and his wife Suzie ever since our kids were very small. I think we met them at the Eisteddfods – their daughter, Anne, excelled in the piano from an early age. I could not believe it when Lee showed me his family photo. Anne is already a mother of two gorgeous kids. Words aren’t necessary to tell me I have become an old man since I last saw her. Lee and Suzie are fantastic cooks. Well, chefs, actually. They aren’t only amazing at producing great meals from time-tested recipes and exotic ingredients, but they are both adept at creating their own unique flavours and new recipes. Lee is well-respected as a goumand with his Swiss patisserie and French gourmet foods and his deep knowledge of wines, whereas Suzie enjoys high accolades for her Malaysian and Nonya cuisine. It is no surprise therefore that we were greatly excited when their invitation arrived. What will it be? His to-die-for duck confit paired with a bold Aussie red or a refreshing Chardonnay to match some scalloped Portobello mushrooms and melted blue cheese with udon noodles? Lee has a soft spot for Pinot Noir, his new-found favourites are those from Rippon in New Zealand. Their dessert will be spectacular. They always are! It would not surprise me if it is something money can’t buy as I have had the privilege to enjoy some delicacies in the past that the shops here do not sell.
Suzie is amazing – a devout Buddhist and therefore a strict vegetarian, she has no qualms about cooking meat dishes for her guests. Only a self-respecting person would respect others with not only different beliefs from hers but opposing ones. Well, maybe she knows we do agree with her about not killing animals for food. It’s just that we have much less self-control. The Mrs and I are both failed vegetarians. To be honest, we didn’t even get far up the ethical chart. We were merely pescatarians. I was a scrawny teenager then and decided from a consequentialist standpoint, a beefed up body was better than abstaining from beef after three years. At the time, my argument with myself did not extend to factors such as global warming caused by cow farts and cow burps. It still seems far-fetched to me that bovine methane gases can have such impact on greenhouse gases in our atmosphere! Decision-making is a lot easier when we are less knowledgeable. The Mrs tried valiantly to be a vegetarian about three years ago when some of our chooks got taken by a fox. The consequence of loving our chooks meant she had to stop eating meat. We can’t love something yet love eating it. Our chooks were undemanding and their love for us was unconditional. I mean, they didn’t ever complain about being fed the same food twice a day every day and leftovers headed for the rubbish bin were as exciting for them as freshly plucked vegetables and grass. Furthermore, they never ever argued with us. How not to have loved them?! But, The Mrs needed both her hips replaced, and her doctor advised her she needed to boost up her protein intake and build up her muscles for a quicker recovery. As a consequence, she went back to loving eating chooks again.
Lee and Suzie live quite far from us, by Adelaide standards anyway. Anywhere that requires more than half an hour to get to is far, by definition. Their single-storey house is in a north-eastern suburb. Somehow, we were able to find it even though the exact street name still escapes me. Maybe this ability to zone in on a place without knowing its precise address is inherited from the birds. After all, they were here over 160 million years before us. The suburb greeted us as it did some twenty odd years ago. Not much has changed – this is the beauty about Adelaide – except their driveway is now paved which made me miss the crunching sound that my car tyres used to make on their white pebbles. As I let my car rolled silently towards the shade provided by a kind old tree in the middle of the garden, I told myself the deeply etched crow’s feet around my eyes would have been thankful they were spared more damage without the harsh glare from the whiteness of the pebbles.
At the door, we were greeted by a rather excited Greyhound that wasn’t grey. Once I had convinced myself their dog wasn’t going to leave its teeth marks on me, a quick scan with my inquisitive eyes informed me they were still as house-proud as they were all those years ago. Everything is in its rightful place, and why not? Saves them from looking for things, right? Their house isn’t sterile like a showroom; comfortably lived in, it is neat and cosy, the absence of pretence most gratifying. Rooms with palatial dimensions to me are grotesque and only show off their pretentious owners. I like these guys, they are as honest as my mirror. What you see is what you get, and it is real. They are really honest people. They call a spade a spade. Lee is still a proud owner of a baby grand and he is still taking lessons from one of the most respected piano teachers in Adelaide! I realised now I have no more excuses about not picking up my violin again. The excuse about my frozen shoulder has been done to death. A perceptive niece said last week there is absolutely no need to lift my violin over my shoulders. That is not how I hold my violin. I will need to rethink my reasons for failing to front up at the local orchestra. It cannot be because of my fear of embarrassing myself in front of the bad players there.
Our hosts showed us to their new entertainment area. Even before I reached the kitchen which was situated in the middle of their house, my nostrils were seduced by the complex fragrances of our lunch. Nasi Lemak! Suzie was quick to confirm as she stopped to show us the wok of curry chicken. I would have been happy just to stay in the kitchen and absorb all the familiar smells of a Malaysian curry. But, The Mrs was already wowing loudly in the next room. She was going ape over their new entertainment room. It had replaced a humble patch of neglected lawn in the backyard behind their garage. Remove the unsightly lawn, add a 18-foot roof and two commercial ceiling-to-floor blinds, and it becomes a beautiful room that can accommodate fifty guests easily. Over hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of Croser Chardonnay, I learned Kuai, their dog, could easily run 60 km/h or was it 0-100 km/h in 6 seconds? Anyway, it was impressive and I remember telling myself not to upset Kuai. It would take me 6 seconds just to get up from bed and walk to the ensuite bathroom a few steps away. No wonder they named him fast in Chinese!
My punctilious host made sure my wine glass was never empty as I busily examined the array of appetisers on the table. As I was pushing another smoked salmon bite into my full mouth, swelling my cheeks, more guests arrived. How do you eat cracker biscuits without making a mess? And how do you hold one with loose toppings without looking overly feminine? As we were being introduced to the young couple, I looked at them through my Von Arkel (Switzerland) glasses that were made in France. I had always wanted to own something chic that is French, and these plain glasses were the only ones within my budget. My busy mouth was still madly pushing the last slivers of salmon and dried cracker biscuit down my throat when Arjun extended his hand to shake mine. I politely smiled at him, unaware that the upward movement of my lips were about to cause some cracker crumbs to drop off onto the clean floor.
Arjun introduced me to his wife, Teena. He is a supremely confident young man, with an intelligent face, a square jaw and a physique that is perfectly enhanced by his black well-ironed Nehru suit. His alert shining eyes miss nothing, and would have zeroed in on the crumbs next to my chair. His occiput is nothing like what I have been seeing lately in my friends, there is no unsightly baldness there. Teena can easily be a leading lady in any Bollywood movie, such is her dazzling beauty. Her oval shaped face is decorated with a matching pair of healthy eyebrows that complement the most stunning almond eyes, a slender nose that is sandwiched by high cheekbones and a voluptuous pair of lips that beamed teeth so white I can guarantee she has never tasted coffee, tea and red wine. Her long earlobes are reminiscent of Buddha’s, a strong hint of her wisdom and intellect. She came across to me as bright, gentle and sonsy. “We lived in Argentina for a few years,” Arjun continued to tell his story. A hundred years ago, it was one of the richest countries in the world, famous for its beef from the pampas. But, their reliance on agriculture over industrialisation during the Peron years in mid 1900’s eventually led to stagnation and inflation, thus the song, ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’. Since 2015, loose money supply policies have seen many rounds of currency devaluations and rampant inflation as a result. Their monthly inflation rate of over 50% has seen their stock market doubled since March this year. I used to think surging asset prices means the economy is going gangbusters. Now, I know it is merely proof that money is becoming worthless and we need more and more cash to buy less and less, hence prices go up, even asset prices such as real estate. The acerbity in The Mrs’ voice had warned me not to talk about cryptocurrencies on our way there, so, the opportunity to add to Arjun’s story was missed.
Instead, I asked Arjun how they met. I wanted to find out about their love story. He hails from Mumbai, briefly known as Bombay in their history when they were occupied by the British. I had to be the predictably boring listener and asked if that was because they were gin drinkers in that part of India. Why else would they name the popular brand of gin after a city? Teena told us she was born in a county named something-Pradesh. No, it wasn’t because she had a heavy Indian accent that I didn’t catch the full name of her town but rather, it was due to my ignorance of Indian geography. In fact she spoke clearly and in perfect English. “And how did you guys meet?” I pressed them again for their love story. “Careful, don’t tell him! He will write about it, ” my sister said. “I didn’t set my eyes on him until our wedding day,” Teena ignored my sister and dropped the bombshell. “You didn’t know what he looked like at all until the wedding ceremony?” I asked in a calm manner like I was asking about the weather whilst in actual fact, my mind was buzzing like it was about to go haywire. “My parents met him once, so they were able to describe him to me,” she added. I knew she wasn’t blind; so it had to be an arranged marriage. “They told me he’s very handsome and very smart. Well educated, kind and gentle and from the same caste,” she listed all the important credentials that he needed to have. “And you didn’t mind that your parents made the decision for you?” I asked. The most important decision in anyone’s life, in fact. “No, I trust my parents. Besides, they discussed it with the other elders in my family,” Teena smiled, expecting that all of us in the room would understand and agree. Well, maybe not expecting, I mean, why would she care if we understood and agreed or not. She wouldn’t. Just like Arjun, she is smart and educated too. A modern woman who now lives in Australia but with a set of very different values and beliefs. I was in awe, actually. That these traditions can not only survive over many thousands of years but still thrive in an era where blockchain technology and the internet of things are about to explode and become the way of life here on earth and in other metaverses. These old ways of picking a partner for life is arcane in our modern societies, but are they necessarily wrong? Looking at the divorce rates today, who are we to judge what is right or wrong? In front of me were two beautiful people, obviously in love and happy in each other’s company. Their insouciance about what others think of their arcane customs and their cheerful demeanour when sharing their experiences only made it more admirable and more believable.
In their world, the male still has some advantages. That made me envious. Why did Pa relinquish his? Why did we give it up? Arjun had the ‘privilege’ to look at the photos of all the ‘candidates’ recommended to him by his parents. Although he also had no say in who they picked for him, I suspected his mother would have considered his feelings in the matter. If a son violently dislikes a photo of the chosen bride shoved in his face, any mother would reconsider, right? Arjun had the benefit of at least knowing what his bride looked like. He went into the contract with eyes wide open. But, I suppose she did too, despite not knowing what he looked like. Her eyes too were wide open. She knew what she was getting into, because there is trust. There is respect for her elders. There is love; love for her parents. Therefore, she knew their decision would be wise, well-considered and right, for her. As long as she is happy, right? And she is! My own parents were match-made too, although for them it was love at first sight, well, at least for my mother. My father, being a man of his era, did not tell me. Men of his era did not confide in their children about their feelings, love life or personal problems. Ma “didn’t mind” being asked to marry that tall handsome man. Yes, she was asked. Her elders said the two of them were compatible, from similar backgrounds and spoke the same dialect, and they could see the man was ‘going places’, someone who was going to be successful or at least give his best. They were not well educated, poverty being a powerful barrier to luxuries such as education. Arjun and Teena are both exceptionally intelligent and highly educated. They are blessed with the right choices their elders made for them (lucky, some may say) and truly, the world is their oyster. The Mrs perhaps said it accurately, “Your marriage is made in Heaven.” Match-made by the gods, actually.
The old man was heard earlier today belting out the tune of Antonin Dvorak’s ‘Song to the Moon’. The Czech opera tells of Rusalka, a nymph who desperately asks the moon to tell her where her Prince is and to tell him how deep her love is for him. She wants to embrace him, and for him to wrap himself all over her. Oh, silvery moon, tell him in dreams to think of her, even if it’s just briefly. The old man didn’t care if his neighbours heard him croak – he was blasting out at full volume. Working from home since the pandemic struck, he had maintained his professional discipline. He still got up early, usually by 7 a.m. and then downstairs to the kitchen for a warm cup of water as his first act of self-preservation. He was emboldened last week after his maiden public speech to say farewell to Mrs Yelland. A woman who was present told him he had a beautiful rich voice. Another told him he set the standard for the morning with his emotionally charged speech. Yet another told him he made a few of the women cry. “Ah, that is no surprise,” he replied. “I often make The Mrs cry, so that’s not unusual,” he explained. It was more a relief for him than a celebration, of course, that he didn’t make a fool of himself. For an old man, at an age when many of his peers had long retired, to finally stand in the front and address a packed room, should have been an embarrassment, certainly nothing to write home about. It could have easily been a disaster. Even the most polished speakers, the most powerful in the world, can stutter and fluff their lines or be caught lying through their teeth. The present POTUS and his predecessor come to mind. He should have believed his Mrs and saved himself a bout of unruly bowel movement. She told him not to worry. She had tried to assuage him his fears were unfounded; that it was a no-brainer. He could not fail. He had a good command of the language and although he looked foreign, his accent wasn’t too foreign to be rejected. And he had a beautiful voice, as early as when he was in Form Six. A girl with uneven teeth who hinted her likelihood of owning hoary hair well before middle age, had told him that. She had come to his defence following a verbal attack on him by a popular ginormous boy. Lim HS towered over most of the students in school, but he did not have a reputation of being a bully. But, the old man had never felt comfortable in school, the belief that he came from a poor family tarnished his sense of self-worth. A poor boy would always be an easy target for ridicule to entertain the bigger boys. So, The Poor Boy was sad that he had suddenly become the giant’s target of scorn during a three-day bungalow stay in Penang Hill. He was a loner, shy and quiet. A diffident boy. He didn’t belong to any close knit group, and was used to be alone in the school compound during recess time. He was mostly an observer of human activity – an infrequent participant. At the bungalow stay, there was a nightly session during which they were encouraged to speak up and share their views about the bungalow stay or about any matter at all. It was in 1976. There were more boys than girls in that school activity organised by a couple of young teachers who were Christian Brothers. The handsome teachers were only a few years older than the students, more respected (as teachers), had more money to spend and therefore were more confident and experienced. It was no wonder they were both rather popular with the girl students who assumed they, being Christian Brothers, were safer to be with despite being also virile young men influenced by heavy dollops of testosterone. The teachers were charmingly disarming and the girls did not imagine there could be any possibility of a romantic liaison with their teachers.
Lim HS was very possibly jealous that the handsome teachers were getting all the attention and so he took it out on The Poor Boy. At the pow-wow session, he accused The Poor Boy of faking his accent to attract the girls. As if the girls would be this superficial and fall for someone with a fake accent? “Why else would you put on this yucky fake Western accent?” Lim HS demanded to know from his asinine question. The Poor Boy was not even aware he sounded different from the others. “Maybe, it was from serving the customers since I was young at my parent’s shop – they were mostly Europeans,” The Poor Boy suggested. “Aw, c’mon! Surely, you can’t expect us to believe that!” the giant retorted with a smug look, without his usual gentleness. I’m coming to get you, boy! I’m gonna bring you down in public. The Poor Boy read from the giant’s cold eyes. But, suddenly those eyes showed doubt. A flicker of confusion. “I like his accent!” one girl said loudly. “Me too,” said another. “Me too,” said yet another. Lim HS was surprised at the support The Poor Boy got and decided his fight was over for the night. “You have a beautiful voice,” the first girl who defended The Poor Boy later said to him privately.
Another girl privately complained to him of leg cramps after the strenuous hike up the hill during the day. She asked the Poor Boy if he knew how to massage away the soreness. He said yes, even though he had never massaged anyone in his life. But, he convinced himself he was not lying, he had often chopped his father’s sore shoulders with his cupped hands. Like mincing meat with a cleaver, he once thought. So, she led him to a garden bench after dinner that night and asked him to soothe her aching thighs. The sun was fighting a losing battle against the moon, but it was a cloudless evening. Oh, moon! Why must you shine so brightly? Although he knew absolutely nothing about the art of massaging, the girl was very impressed with his strong fingers. “Higher, yes a little bit harder. Yes, there. There….” she said, guiding his hands with her voice box as the remote controller. It was a proper massage, without any sexual undertones. The girl enjoyed the massage. The boy enjoyed giving it. The teenagers were too young to be aroused sexually. “After all, that was my first physical experience with a girl,” the old man confided to me. Yes, it wasn’t a kiss! It was a leg massage! He told her he would be available the following night as he didn’t expect her cramps to go away so soon. The following morning, the two new friends somehow found each other strolling in the garden. The air was cool, certainly much cooler than in town. The humidity was a lot lower also. The relaxed and cool ambience made Penang Hill a popular holiday destination for the European expats. For many locals such as the two new friends, this was a new experience. The girl asked the Poor Boy what his plans were for the future as they stood side by side, admiring the beautiful scenery from the lookout. The Poor Boy’s eyes followed the grey sea in the far distant until it disappeared from the edge of the world. He wondered what was on the other side beyond the sea. Closer to the foothills were shimmering moving objects, moving like ants along serpentine tracks that must be the same roads they took on the bus to get to the funicular train station. Oblivious that they were standing too close together -their shoulders almost touching, drawing warmth from each other’s arms – their body language had caught the attention of two other friends, one of whom was a shutter bug with a new camera. “Come, come, let’s take a photo of us together,” the shutter bug said as he directed the four of them to sit on a stone bench and called for another friend to snap their photograph after pushing a flower into the lanky girl’s hand. After the photo was taken, the two new friends were left alone to continue their conversation. Unknowingly, the boy instantly killed off the girl’s interest in him when he blurted out that he had applied to study in Australia and would quite likely not attend Upper Form Six the next year. “So, what happened?” I asked the old man. His mood darkened, his smile vanished and turned into a scowl. His Adam’s apple moved abruptly along his neck, disturbing the sagging layers of wrinkled skin and he spluttered violently like old men do when their saliva slithered down the wrong pipe. “She called off the second night’s massage,” was all he said. It was like their special connection did not happen. It was like they never happened. Was it just a dream perhaps? “If the dream was real, then there should be a photo,” I suggested. The old man did not offer to reply. Could it be she was the Rusalka the old man was singing about that morning? Oh moon, please stay awhile longer.
So, the old man sang to his heart’s content. He was supposed to be working at his desk, but he thought of Rusalka and he pretended to be her Prince. He didn’t know the words, and thought he could make up for it by being louder. On his right was a bifold French door that opened out to a courtyard garden. The shimmering water of the pond caught his attention. There was a discernible loss of water again, so he went out to inspect where the leak was. The ground had turned desert dry quickly, it being officially only the third day of Summer. The benefit of that was apparent very quickly to the old man. During the wet season, the rain replenished the pond and the ground was always wet all over. But, now a dark thin line created by the dampness on the paved floor told him where the source of the leak was. The waterfall had splashed back from where it landed on a slab of stone to the side of the pond below the filter box. That was enough to cause the water loss. The old man adjusted the slab of stone slightly to divert all the water towards the pond instead. Problem fix. The old man was so happy with himself and he went back to his room and resumed singing about the moon again.
Dada dada dadada dah dah
Didi dada didi da da dadida dah
Oh moon, stay a while,
Tell me where is my love… where?
Tell him, oh, tell him, silver moon.
The old man returned to his work desk but the mood to work had left him. The ergonomic stool was becoming uncomfortable. They were designed to be uncomfortable! The seat was hard and the lack of a back rest made sure he could not slouch during work. He cursed at it and decided to stand instead. The opportunity to raise his VariDesk and work standing up had become rare ever since his son’s puppy showed its obvious preference to sleep on his lap whilst he worked. The puppy wasn’t with him that day, so he had no reason to be sitting down. He missed the dog, his best friend. The faint smell of the dog was like an air freshener, its familiarity soothed the old man. They were inseparable during the day, the dog would be happy to laze on its cushion on the old man’s lap all day. The dog knew his routine, down pat to when he needs to visit the toilet. A lap dog, it knew the old man’s lap was reserved only for him. If the old man’s Mrs came too close, it would ward her off with a soft but threatening growl. Grrrrr. The dog knew this was its territory and within the realm of the four walls, it was the alpha. But, The Mrs won the battle of who’s the boss in the end. She insisted it also knew its paws had to be thoroughly washed in the laundry tub before it was allowed to walk in the house. The old man didn’t care who won, he was happy to sing to his moon.
Dada dada dadada dah dah
Didi dada didi da da dadida dah
Wondrous vision, immensely sweet,
Are you human or a fairy tale?
Are your lips sealed by a secret,
or has your tongue fallen forever silent?
If your lips are mute, God knows
I’ll kiss an answer from them!
“We are off to the moon!” a friend screamed. A few others joined in loudly like a choir, “To the moon! To the moon!” The old man was new to this crypto banter. His mates had all confided to one another that “I bought a little of this last week,” and “I bought a little bit of that this week.” After the Omicron crash. Small players, definitely not even a fish amongst them. A crypto fish is a minnow, one who owns very little crypto, perhaps a few Satoshis. A million Satoshis make up one Bitcoin (BTC). A Bitcoin whale is a big investor who owns at least 1,000 BTC. A shrimp owns less than 1 BTC, a crab on the other hand owns 1 to 10 BTC, whereas an octopus has its tentacles on 10 to 50 BTC. They were off to the moon, until Omicron hit. Omitaba, the old man said. The Dow reversed over 1,000 points that afternoon. BTC fared even worse. When will it become the true store of value? Digital gold, they promised. Michael Saylor, CEO of MicroStrategy had been convincing. His directors, his shareholders, his auditors. Us. He was the first in Corporate America to convince his board of directors to protect their treasury from the debasement of the US dollar. THE USD had devalued by 25% during the first year in the pandemic. The Fed had been “printing” money irresponsibly for the past two years, increasing the money supply by 7% to 24% last year, and a further 16% this year. The US balance sheet was just over $4 trillion in January 2020, but today it is already almost $9 trillion. The more than doubling of their balance sheet was of course not due to an increase in their GDP, it was purely due to creating money from nothing, no printing required even. If they expect the rest of the world will keep producing goods and services for them to enjoy when all they need do is to add a few zeros to their balance sheet, then they are grossly mistaken. It was easy for the old man to therefore understand that the cash he had kept in his bank account since the global financial crisis (GFC) wiped out his shares in the stockmarket had depreciated markedly. Staying on the sidelines, waiting for another crash in the longest bull run ever in history before he got back to investing in shares again meant he had sidelined himself from maintaining the value of his savings. The 1-5 % interest rates p.a. he earned during the past twelve years were not enough to keep up with inflation let alone contain the loss of buying power from the currency debasement. The Dow Jones after the GFC in 2009 was 8,885. Today, it sits at 34,639, almost a fourfold increase. GDP per capita in the same period had only gone up 34%. Every asset class had gone up – stocks, houses, gold and silver, commodities, etc. So, what it tells us is that it is costing us much much more to buy assets with our money. Asset prices have gone up because the value of the denominator has gone down. We do not feel richer. It was not so much inflation that caused it but rather, the USD, the world’s fiat currency had debased by almost 75% since 2009. The US inflation rate of 6.2% recently reported was a joke anyway. The US inflation measure does not include the cost of energy, food, housing and education in the cost of living calculations. If you believe their inflation figures, then you believe they do not need to eat, sleep, travel and educate themselves. Back in 2010, an iPhone 4 cost 2,487 BTC or USD199. Today, an iPhone 13 costs USD799 but a mere 0.014 BTC. This is why we see the ongoing migration to crypto. BTC offsets monetary debasement, due to its pristine properties of money. Its portability is unrivalled, funds can be transferred within mere seconds from one country to another at almost zero cost. Its scarcity is also unrivalled, a maximum limit of 21 million coins can be mined in the blockchain which is decentralised (no human intervention), verifiable, transparent and perhaps most importantly, immutable – it cannot be changed. The holdings is also guaranteed to reduce over time as careless people lose them. More demand, less supply equals more value. Gold was supposed to be scarce yet the miners can keep mining for gold and technology will make it cheaper to mine gold as they have done with oil fracking. So, it is no surprise that a wall of money will be poured into crypto very soon. Institutions, superannuation funds and even countries are beginning to invest in this space. Last week, over USD106 million of metaverse land was sold. Yes, virtual land. To the moon! To the moon! We are going to the moon!
The funeral director at Alfred James said we were there to celebrate. Celebrate someone’s death? Mrs Yelland was someone so dear to me. It was her funeral yesterday, 25th November 2021. But, how on earth can we bring ourselves to celebrate her passing? The modern meaning of ‘celebrate’ has been skewed to mean a happy time, to party, to enjoy a happy occasion with a feast, dance and grog. For me, it usually means a rock lobster with fried noodles, i.e. rarely. The funeral director was like an apparition to me – I could hear her and could see a body smartly dressed in a black suit from the corner of my eyes but whose face I did not even have the courtesy to look at. Forgive me, I was in mourning. She explained to us that the true word for ‘celebrate’ is to solemnise an event or honour a person in order to publicly acknowledge that the event or person has significance. She spoke professionally in a low and appropriately sad voice. Her comforting words were very possibly from a template she will often use in her opening delivery as a professional. My mind had wandered off before she finished. The Mrs was thoughtful enough to collect a big bunch of red roses from our neighbour’s garden and present it beautifully in a nice box. If not for her, we would have got there empty-handed. I felt the urgent need to apologise to Mrs Yelland as I looked intently at her lonely coffin in the front of the room.
We were almost late for the funeral. “HURRY UP! WE CANT BE LATE TODAY!” I yelled at the heavy footsteps upstairs. Ever since The Mrs retired over ten years ago, she gets to do whatever she wishes. Her time is strictly hers too. No longer dictated by other people’s schedules, she was also late for her doctor’s appointment. How do I know this? Because they rang me. She wanted to show her respect and love for Mrs Yelland and asked to deliver her eulogy at the funeral. But, she woke up the day before and thought she saw a ghost in the mirror. Around her eyes were big dark circles and the sudden greying of her hair made her look ghostly. She looked more like a panda bear than a ghost, I thought, but I kept quiet as neither would sound right to her. So, she said it would not be appropriate for her to stand in front of everyone looking like a ghost in a funeral. A few days earlier, she had tripped whilst tending to our neighbour’s garden in the front and fell down the rocky slope. She tried to get up by grabbing at a nearby branch (luckily it was not one with rose thorns) but she slipped and fell further. A second attempt also failed and she tumbled down the moss rocks. She hit her head against a rock but at least it stopped her from falling further, I reasoned with her. I suspected the mild concussion caused her hair to suddenly turn grey but she was adamant to put the blame on me instead. I made her old and grey. I was watching The Legends of Chu and Han on Youtube when she walked in. No, she limped into the house. She showed me the deep gashes on all her four limbs, as proudly as a Vietnam vet would to prove his battle scars amounted to bravery. Her dishevelled hair and soft whimper prised my attention away from the TV. “I fell down,” she said with a trembling voice. You won’t need to ask her what my reaction was; she will tell you I nagged and scolded her like she was a kid. She won’t tell you I quickly got up and got her some band-aid and antiseptic cream. And, of course I did not nag! I merely asked her why? Why did you not learn from your lesson? Why won’t you learn? Why won’t you wear proper shoes and leather gloves? There are snakes in the garden, you know! Her excuse? We Chinese are accustomed to wearing our thongs at home. Flip-flops are the most comfortable and easiest to wear. But, she won’t accept that wearing thongs or wearing my leather sandals are a bad idea in the garden – they aren’t purpose-built protective footwear for the gardener, right? “Just be nice and pour me a gin,” she said, trying to change the subject. Since then, I have been properly chastened by her stories to her friends that I am a really unsympathetic nag. A few weeks earlier, she slipped and fell on the neighbour’s property; she did not know how to negotiate the slippery wet slope of their steep driveway with the slippery leather soles of the oversized leather sandals she was wearing; oversized for her because they belong to me. I told The Mrs this is a serious matter. People of our age should not be falling so regularly. We ought to be more careful and take necessary precautions. Mrs Sage from two doors away came to visit us after The Mrs had her second fall. She walked into our house with her sand shoes on. I did not have the heart to tell her to take them off – I imagined it would be an enormous effort for the old woman to bend down, teeter and take them off in front of me. It makes logical sense to wear thongs, see? Just fling your feet and the thongs come flying off them. No laces to untie, no need to bend her back or lose her balance. The Mrs is always this convincing. I will need to apologise to her too.
The funeral director brought me back to the room. She was about to play a cello duet performed by two of Mrs Yelland’s students. It was a concert they performed in Manchester over ten years ago. Before they came on, I had apologised to Mrs Yelland. It remains my huge regret that I visited her only four times in the six years she spent in the nursing home. On the first three occasions, she could still remember us and we were able to have meaningful conversations. There were no moments to dull our minds whenever Mrs Yelland was around, longueurs and she could not exist together. The last time I saw her was in June 2019. By then, her illness had robbed her of her beautiful thick long hair and agility. Her hair had turned all white and thinned enough so that parts of her scalp were visible. She no longer waltzed or clicked her heels like a tap dancer in the lounge. Her lips had become two thin lines of skin which hid a mouth that was empty of teeth. Saddest was that wretched illness had also robbed her of her memory. She did not recognise any of us. She no longer asked about my father whom she always admired, because she knew about how he spurned a childhood of abject poverty and left home at nine years of age to fend for himself. She could also feel his pride and amazing support for the boys – her boys. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It may actually be more cruel to us than to the patient, since the patient would not be aware of her debilitating condition later on. Well, that is what I hoped for anyway. It would be too cruel if she knew she had lost all her precious memories. When her mother passed away, Mrs Yelland confided to me that she was fearful that one day she too would be afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She would have lived with that worry for decades. That is also the cruel thing about the disease. I told her I was sorry for not checking on her more often. Even though she did not recognise us, it was not sufficient reason to not visit more often. The pandemic offered me a good reason for awhile, but to use it as a reason would be too convenient. She would not have liked me to be a malingerer. On the weekend before she passed away, I had actually planned to visit. Murray, my son’s dog can vouch for me. I told him during a long walk. That I did not get to do it hurts even more. The regret is more painful today. I am so sorry, Mrs Yelland.
The cello music was impossible to ignore. I had listened to it many times over the years, but in that room, on that occasion, it was especially beautiful yet filled with deep sorrow. The Andante of Jean-Baptiste Barriere’s Cello Sonata in G for two cellos ripped out my heart. I could not contain my tears and towards the end, they freely flowed down my cheeks. I did not see any point to wipe them off. No need to hide. I wondered why Barriere wrote such a sad movement, and for whom did he write it. It is to me an elegy, a lament for the dead. A wonderful choice, for Mrs Yelland, played by two of her students.
Before I had the time to compose myself, the funeral director had asked me to read my eulogy for Mrs Yelland. I had never made a public speech in my life. It had become a phobia, I did not want to admit. How can someone in his sixties evade speaking in public for so long? I was a confident student in my first year of university. When asked to present a talk on the theory of price elasticity, I stepped in front of the big tutorial class full of confidence and thought I could be as impressive as the lecturer. I started delivering my full understanding of the topic without any notes, but I bombed out when drawing a graph on the blackboard. Looking up at the board above eye level and writing with a chalk that kept breaking was a very different experience from looking down at a piece of paper on my desk and scribbling on it with a pen. It was embarrassing. I became confused and lost control of my talk. The lecturer must have pitied me when he asked me to stop. I was a total wreck as I trudged back to my desk with my tail between my legs. That scarred me forever. So, when The Mrs told me she could not deliver her eulogy and I was given no option, I became afraid. My hands turned icy cold. Sophie, Mrs Yelland’s daughter, called to tell me it would be very appropriate for me to speak. I had no choice. My ice cold hands were frozen by then. I had to make many trips to the toilet the day before the funeral. I learned that anxiety does cause diarrhoea and not just morning sickness which I had lots of on the days of school exams. But, on the morning of the funeral, I was calm. Although I had not ever made a public speech and in front of so many people, I had no qualms at all when the moment came for me to stand up. I simply told myself it was not about me. So, there was no reason to be self-centred or self-conscious. Or be nervous! I did not even care that I was swimming in my old new suit. Hardly worn, it was made to fit me perfectly some ten years ago. I was not aware I had lost so much weight since practising intermittent fasting. Mrs Yelland never cared about material goods or brand names. She cared even less about money and high fashion and pretentious people. Photos beamed on the big screen showed her to be a very beautiful young woman with very kind eyes, a perfectly shaped nose and perfectly shaped lips. Her living room was well lived in, not at all a display room, but instead it was crammed with the most impressive collection of books, cello music sheets, CDs and DVDS. Her vast vinyls collection was comprehensive and included recordings of all the great cello legends. It was clear to me Mrs Yelland would not bat an eyelid over my ill-fitting suit. I knew I would be alright before I made my first public speech. Because, it would be about Mrs Yelland. It would be for her.
My eulogy for Barbara Yelland (24.01.1948 – 03.11.2021)
My wife, Joon, first met Barbara in a school carpark. We have always called her Mrs Yelland out of our respect for great teachers. Mrs Yelland was visibly late, rushing towards her old yellow car – her long strides somewhat slowed by the burden of a cello strapped on her shoulder. A cello! “She must be a cello teacher!” Joon cleverly deduced. Even though Mrs Yelland was clearly in a rush, she kindly stopped for Joon. “Excuse me, excuse me!” Joon yelled across the carpark. “Will you teach my sons?” she asked. “Twins!” Mrs Yelland’s eyes sparkled. She already knew they were twins because in that school in 1989, they were the only three Asian kids, one older brother and two twins. “They are good kids, and they lurrrve music!” “Their brother is already learning the violin and piano,” Joon continued to sell our kids. But, all Mrs Yelland promised was to give us a tape of Suzuki’s music for them to listen to. We didn’t know at the time, but that was her way of saying yes. Years later, she told me there was no doubt she would teach them. She was curious to discover how to teach twins.
Mrs Yelland taught them till they were twelve, apart from a short stint of about six months when she joined the ASO when they were six or seven years old. Her absence dramatically showed what a great teacher she was. The contrast in her teaching methods was like night and day when compared with the other teacher’s. Their enthusiasm for learning soon reignited when Mrs Yelland returned. She took them everywhere – for Suzuki rehearsals and concerts – we, the parents, were tied to our business and could not leave work. Occasionally, she treated them to a cake or pie at her local deli. She was the one to introduce them to mince pies. Yes, son. There is no meat in mince pies! The other benefit she gave us was she came to our home to teach. She wasn’t just their cello teacher. She was their cello mum. Her devotion, and passion for the cello was, I think, the catalyst for their love for music.
Friday nights were special. Mrs Yelland came at five pm. Although she made it a point for the twins to take turns to start each lesson, there would be the inevitable jostling and subsequent misery by the one who had the second lesson. In actual fact, they each had two lessons, as the one who had to wait would still be observing the lesson. It was quite common during a lesson for the twins to suddenly scream out “The chicken! The chicken!” Mrs Yelland had tears in her eyes as she told us how hilarious it was to witness the panic in the boys as they stopped the lesson abruptly to clean and cook the chicken. We didn’t arrive home from work till six thirty, so it was their responsibility to get dinner ready.
Dinner was usually at seven, during which the adults’ conversations would veer perilously from religion to politics and refugees and even the environment. Our dinner conversations could be best described as lively and boisterous. Mrs Yelland was proud of her Irish roots and very much a romantic humanitarian. A single mother, on a single income, she had no qualms about helping others. Her political leanings were the opposite of mine and her strong sense of social responsibility, I now should acknowledge, was right and I was wrong. Mrs Yelland’s kind heart ranked highest despite her modest economic means. She had the most beautiful soul.
Lessons would resume at eight and not finish until eleven. It was not unusual to find one of the twins quietly crying on the staircase. I did not have to ask him to know that he felt aggrieved that his lesson was shortened by dinner, and that he was not compensated with any extra time. They were both happiest when Mrs Yelland asked them to play cello duets. It meant no one missed out on playing time! Mrs Yelland called them “My boys”. “My boys should compete in the Eisteddfods!” My boys this and my boys that. It is no wonder they loved her so much. Mrs Yelland asked Joon to enter their names in the local competitions. She refused. She was too scared of failure, for the boys’ failure. She didn’t want the boys to be scarred so young. “No, my boys will learn a lot from it,” Mrs Yelland said. Being their cello mother, she entered them in the Eisteddfods instead. She was right, of course. The opportunity to perform in public from an early stage was so important to their development, to anyone’s development. Before the youngest turned ten, the brothers won gold in the Eisteddfods playing Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. A devilishly difficult piece. Especially the piano part. Only Mrs Yelland had such confidence in her boys to pull it off with that!
Music has enriched our lives beyond what I could ever imagine. Mrs Yelland and her boys took us on their amazing journey, traversing the music world and meeting so many interesting people and places. There were so many highs we enjoyed together. We attended many competitions and concerts together. Mrs Yelland travelled with us to Hobart, to attend a national competition. Our last concert together was at a lunchtime concert at the 2014 Adelaide International Cello Festival. She was already suffering from early Alzheimer’s but she was so thrilled with their performance. After the concert, we stopped by a cafe and had cappuccino and cake. It was a great moment that made a lasting and permanent memory for me, but alas for Mrs Yelland, she had forgotten she attended the concert by the time I dropped her home. Mrs Yelland, thank you for being part of our family. We love you and will always love you. I will hold on tightly to the happy times we had together. Your memory will live on whenever I hear cello music on the radio, music you taught your boys.
Thee were many speakers who shared wonderful stories about Mrs Yelland. She is indeed one of the greatest cello teachers South Australia has produced. Her big heart and beautiful soul in the cello world was, to me, unrivalled. An inspiration to many and greatly admired by all despite her huge dislike for bureaucracy and head-numbing red tape. Many mothers said that Mrs Yelland was incredibly generous, she always gave much much more than the allotted time. It is true that no one could afford their lessons if they had to pay for what they received. That was for sure. She gave so much to all her students. “I should not be paid more for enjoying what I do,” she said to one mother who tried to pay for the extra lesson. We were convinced Mrs Yelland will live on, not just here, but all over the world. Her love for music, her soulful artistry, her musical interpretations and perhaps most importantly, her passion for the cello will spread far and wide via her students, many of whom teach in other countries today. When the funeral director asked us to pause quietly and celebrate Mrs Yelland’s memory in our own way, I screamed inside my head, wanting desperately to have a last look at her and say my goodbye face to face. But, the coffin was closed, separating the dead from those alive in the room. The thought did cross my mind later as I stood close to the coffin and laid both hands on it to say my final goodbye. Maybe it was just a prop and she was already somewhere else. I do not know why I did it but I softly tapped the coffin’s lid with my fingers and lowered my head before I left her one last time. Maybe I wanted to leave my fingerprints with her. Vale, Barbara.