Honour Thy Owner

Benji is seven months old. Mischievous, fearless and surprisingly, faster than Murray. The two dogs were having fun in the park, frolicking, sparring and humping each other. Their obvious delirious attraction and enthusiasm for each other, chasing and licking each other on their first meeting was the kind of innocent joy that I have not felt for a very long time. Benji’s owner smiled at me as she disengaged herself from her phone and terminated her conversation with the person at the other end of the line. A telephone line will be a thing of the past in a few more years, I thought.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink will be the disruptive technology that ultimately spells the end of phone companies such as Apple and Samsung. Neuralink is poised to undergo a human trial to study the effectiveness of their brain implant as an interface with our brain. The goal is for the brain to communicate directly with our computers. Children in the future will no longer need to study the subjects we used to learn in school, since all knowledge will be available not at their fingertips but at the tips of their synapses via this implant.

https://www.techradar.com/news/elon-musks-neuralink-is-one-step-closer-to-putting-an-implant-in-our-brains

As if the goal of bypassing damaged spinal nerves via his chip isn’t enough to enable quadriplegics and paraplegics to control their body movements, Elon Musk reckons his chip will one day also control the brain’s hypothalamus to control appetite and therefore morbid obesity.

“You’re the owner of the dog?” Benji’s owner asked.

A nice opening line, I reminded myself to use that in the future. She was youngish-looking and rather attractive. I should confess I find most blondes attractive. I almost stared at her, but was quick enough and turned my eyes skywards to avoid embarrassing myself. Arrested by her beauty, the balance in my universe was disturbed momentarily as I stumbled on my own words.

“Er, who, yes, he is mine,” I said absent-mindedly before realising I mis-spoke.

“Er, no. I mean, he is my son’s dog,” I corrected myself.

“His name is Murray, from Murray Bridge,” I said.

“Isn’t it strange how we end up looking after someone else’s dog?” she replied, and informed me Benji was her son’s dog.

“But, Murray is my pal, he is never an inconvenience,” I defended him.

“Besides, he treats me like I am his owner!” I added.

“He honours me like I am his owner,” I beamed with pride as I made that irrefutable fact known to her.

Murray does honour me like his owner. In his eyes, I am blameless. He was doing the downward-dog pose whenever he leapt off my lap the other day. Unusual, I thought. Later that afternoon, I found out why. He wasn’t his usual excited self when I showed him the leash and teased him, “Wanna go to the park?” His eyes did not light up, and he did not jump up to grab the leash with his teeth. Anyway, I sort-of had to drag him to the reserve across the street which he treats as his toilet. After that, we would habitually embark on an hour’s walk to anywhere he fancied. But, no. He dragged me straight home instead. “No? You don’t want to go for a walk?” I asked incredulously. It didn’t take me long to realise Murray had abdominal pain. He had his tail between his legs as he insisted we crossed the street back to the house. He did not whimper even as he suffered many bouts of diarrhea that evening. First Son asked accusingly when he came to pick up Murray, “What did you feed him?!” Murray did not accuse me, not even once. I am blameless, that is how he honours me.

Murray knows to honour his owner.

Her phone rang, quite loudly, at the most inopportune time as I was about to pat Benji. As she picked up her phone and began to start another conversation, I knew our conversation had ended before I had the chance to talk about Elon Musk’s chip. Yeah, that is the nature of my conversations with beautiful strangers, from dog ownerships to neurological chips in one sentence.

The handsome one is Murray.

Talking about owners and honouring them, I must not forget to mention the owner of the house next door to me. They normally reside in Malaysia and only visit Adelaide once in a blue moon. Infrequently here, they have unknowingly allowed me the total enjoyment of their garden without their explicit permission. Tasked with looking after their garden during their long absence which was annoyingly extended by the pandemic, I had become somewhat possessive of it. When The Lady said she knew the garden like the back of her hand, I gave myself a loud chuckle. She may think she knew it so intimately but she did not. I know her garden like the back of my hand, I corrected her sentence, without communicating it to her.

I was initially excited by The Bloke’s enthusiasm to improve their garden’s lighting. During the lockdowns, he was stuck at home in Kuala Lumpur. So, he surfed the internet and went shopping for all sorts of gadgets for their garden there. Electronic door locks and garden lighting caught his attention. Night lights create a nice mood in any garden, and in theirs, they surely accentuate the beauty of the landscaping and choice of plants. But, horrors! The Bloke told me he had trimmed off much of the undergrowth and a lot of the young branches of shrubs that had blocked the beams of light now emitting from the newly installed spotlights. Personally, my preference is for the lights to create a mood rather than brighten the garden like a tennis court, but hey, I gotta honour the owner! He is the owner, he can very well do whatever to the garden as he pleases, and if a shrub displeases him, he has every right to just destroy its existence. I will refrain from arguing with him that the plant will suffer unnecessary trauma! But, when I discovered where he had conveniently dumped the cuttings, I felt the plants’ pain too. The Bloke had piled up the unsightly garden refuse in a back corner, unknowingly burying my precious turmeric plant that is doing poorly as the nights start to turn cold.

“Hush, honour the owner,” I reminded myself.

“Honour the owner,” I reminded The Mrs again and again weeks ago.

It is their garden. Although The Mrs and her sister get along really well, it is only proper that we respect them as the owner of the garden, and thus “we must constantly remind ourselves of that,” I said to The Mrs. But, The Mrs loves persimmons, especially the ones that are slightly astringent, oblivious of The Lady’s and The Bloke’s repeated statements that they prefer ripe ones. “We like it sweet,” they said again and again. The Mrs, somewhat hard of hearing, did not stop harvesting a handful each day. “Yum, I love these crunchy ones,” she said as she walked past her sister. The following day, the plant was totally bare of fruits. The Lady wisely harvested them all before the possums and her sister did. Honour the owner, I pretended not to know that there was a competition for persimmons that day.

The Bloke caught the bug for keyless entry systems for his house in KL a few months ago. You know the ones, biometric readers such as facial recognition, retina scans or fingerprint readers, some with built-in alarm systems. I was a little worried that he would bring a few sets for his house here also. The Federation-style house here does not lend itself to modern gadgets for the doors. I mean, have you seen the monstrosity of the Made-in-China gadgets? They are cold and hard and bulky, in contrast to the warmth and inviting looks of his beautiful timber door. Honour the owner. Honour the owner! “Do not mention they would look horrible on his door,” I reminded myself.

No, no. No electronic keyless gadget on the door please.

Honour the owner, I reminded myself again today. Crypto owners across the globe have been decimated these past weeks. The gurus I follow still front up on their Youtube channels daily, looking stoic and with brave faces and strong voices, continue to preach the goodness of Bitcoin. Some have proven their honesty by confessing they have lost huge sums of money, “equivalent to the value of a house,” George of Cryptosrus said. Luckily for me, I focus on learning about Bitcoin only, whenever they stray into ‘degen’ mode, I turn off. The most erudite Bitcoin maximalist, Michael Saylor, continues to ‘hodl’ and imagine Bitcoin becoming the only money worth anything. The young ‘degens’ harped about the Terra blockchain and its crypto coin Luna, and the stable coin it powers, TerraUSD, for many weeks. During that short time, I watched the Luna price go up from $35 to almost $120 just a few weeks ago. “High risks, high returns,” I observed without a tinge of regret of missing out. The last time I checked, the Terra blockchain has been halted, and the Luna price is worth maybe 2 cents. Phew, do I not regret missing out! Another headline boldly claims, ‘Bitcoin is dead’. But then, we have had over 400 Bitcoin obituaries in its short history. “Honour the owner,” I reminded The Mrs. There is no need to criticise their decision-making. There is no need to mock their philosophy about real money and fiat money. There is enough blood on the streets all over the world. “Will Bitcoin become worthless?” The Mrs asked. Hoping that she had not heard Warren Buffet’s attitude towards Bitcoin, I firmly said “NO!” The best investment guru of all time, the nonagenarian recently said he would not pay $25 for all the Bitcoin in the world. I did not dare share my thoughts with her. If someone can attack the UST stable coin, causing a manic panic that destroyed it in four days, much like a run on a bank that killed off the British bank Northern Rock and Bear Sterns in 2008, then that someone can also wreck much damage to the King of all crypto coins. It has not escaped my mind that there is a high probability that the IMF and central banks could easily print money at zero cost, buy Bitcoin over the counter, (OTC transactions do not affect the price) and dump the coin via the exchanges at vastly lower prices causing a rout to the crypto market. Will Bitcoin become zero? Honour the owner, do not frighten them. Do not frighten The Mrs!

Honour the owner. Honour thy neighbour.

The Seller Without A Cellar

The Bloke next door wants to sell his house! He made his shocking announcement over breakfast yesterday. “No! You can’t sell this house!” The Mrs screeched in pain. She briefly forgot the laws dictating property rights in Australia. It is not even remotely possible that she is one of the First Nations peoples who may have a case to traditional ownership of the land next door. “No! I won’t allow you to move from here,” she beseeched her sister, The Lady of the house. The couple looked bemused, not the least confused about their legal right to do as they please with their property. Munching at the yummy deep-fried halloumi cheese without revealing my thoughts, I wondered why the sudden decision by The Bloke. Just the other day, he sounded so pleased with his ‘resort-style’ house and garden as he proudly showed some guests around his property. “Where is the cellar?” I vaguely heard someone ask. Nope, the house has no cellar! The rumours had been rife for years that I could simply walk down their wine cellar and help myself to an orgiastic party of the best reds and whites. I mean wines here, lads, not ladies. The Lady had vetoed the idea of a cellar, citing the irrefutable reason that we are located right in the middle between the best two wine-producing regions in the world, the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Valley, a mere fifty minutes’ drive either north or south. Behind us is the Adelaide Hills, home to more top calibre vineyards. Why have a cellar when we can simply duck out for a few bottles of the best wines?” she reasoned. Even though The Lady’s original plans were to build a “cute cottage”, the eventual house design, although by no means palatial, spanned over 390 sq metres of floor space.

Egg and mushrooms and deep-fried halloumi cheese.

There are no sesterces in their pond. I know that for a fact, because I have been the one looking after it all these years. The Bloke, being professionally trained as an engineer, is the least inclined amongst the people I know to throw coins into a body of water for good luck. No, his brain is wired scientifically. Yet, I could not fathom why the sudden change of heart in deciding to offload his house in a weakening real estate market. Maybe he thinks interest rates will go much higher in the coming months and wreck all the big gains we have seen here. Maybe he is looking to please his wife and down-size to the “cute cottage” she had dreamt of for a long time. Maybe he feels the garden and the pond are demanding too much of his time and energy. No, I look after the pond, remember? Maybe he pities me. Maybe he thinks my old age is advancing too quickly and his garden will be too physically demanding for an old fella like me to cope with. Maybe he wants to divest from real estate and invest in real money instead? I told him Bitcoin is the only real money today. Fiat money is simply created by the central banks from thin air. “Isn’t Bitcoin also created from thin air, a scam?’ he challenged me a few days ago. So, I spoilt everyones’ appetite that day by harping about the merits of Bitcoin and how billions of dollars are being pumped into mining the coin. “You can’t mine what isn’t real,” I argued unconvincingly. Lacking the nous and oratory skills of a Raoul Pal or Michael Saylor, incredibly smart gurus who have converted me to study the blockchain phenomenon in more detail, and accept that the internet is going to be built on blockchain technology at an exponential rate in the coming years, I got nobody interested in what I had to say. “Bitcoin is a scam,” The Bloke repeated, and thus ended our conversation.

So, why would he sell his house, I wondered. Maybe he finds his neighbours intrusive. We are often still forgetful that they have returned from overseas and habitually cross the boundary of the house and therefore cross the boundary of civility. Well, it is not me who usually transgresses – not in the early mornings anyway, I am acutely careful in case they are walking about on their property stark naked or in their briefs. Murray, my son’s dog, must have wondered for the past weeks why I no longer allow him the pleasure of gnawing his doggie bone whilst I do my Qigong on their putting green each morning. But, The Mrs is less restrained. After all, her sister has no surprises to show her, and The Bloke doesn’t have anything extra that she hasn’t seen in a man.

Maybe The Bloke just wants to have a good time, find something exciting to do. A change is as refreshing as a holiday, they say. Sell the house. Build a new one. A better one. Maybe he wants a good day. To have a good day, do good. Any other source of joy is outside our control. But, doing good is within our control, and when we do good, we feel good.

If you want some good, get it from yourself.

Epitetus, Discourses, 1.29.4

“So tell us, why do you want to sell?” The Mrs asked in a demanding tone last night. Visibly still upset at the idea of being separated from her sister soon, The Mrs crossed the boundary by asking the question that does not entitle her to an answer many hours after the initial shock. Still despondent, she showed her unhappiness over dinner last night. I think she genuinely likes their garden. It is literally our garden of Eden, a paradise where a single apple tree can bear hundreds and hundreds of fruit – I stopped counting at four hundred and fifty. The persimmon tree gave us over three hundred. “What if the new owner is a thug? What a disaster!” she groaned. “What if they play rowdy music all day long?” “What if they smoke weed?” She fired off so many ‘what ifs’ The Bloke raised his palm to stop her. “Sister,” he said. “Do you think I want to sell?” he asked in his deep and rich voice.

The Lady had been too shocked to say a word. She loved the house and the rose garden was exactly how she imagined it to be. The U-shape design of the house was also a style she desired as soon as the seed to build her dream cottage was planted in her mind. The pond and its mini waterfalls were never part of the original plan but once she saw how they would, from the focal point of the ‘U’, draw a person’s attention in the living areas of the house towards the beautiful garden, she quickly embraced my suggestion to situate a pond there. She remained tight-lipped for many hours after The Bloke’s shocking announcement. I asked The Mrs if she had heard from her sister. She shook her head in a crest-fallen manner. The Lady’s persistent silence indicated a determined suppression of her emotions, I thought. All is not lost, she has her ways of making her husband bend to her wishes, I suggested to The Mrs. “IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT!” The Mrs said loudly and firmly, her sharp finger gesticulating wildly at me and her sharp tongue brutally tearing me into tiny bits. “You and your stupid ghost stories!” she accused me this morning even before I was fully awake. Last night, The Bloke revealed his decision to sell was due to the ‘Boogeyman’ in his house.

The gazebo isn’t the focal point of this garden! It is the pond.

“And oh, in a pandemic, humans are more scary. Ghosts cannot infect us with the virus! I’d rather see a ghost than a stranger in our house in the middle of the night,” I concluded, I thought quite convincingly. The Lady had heard enough nonsense from me. She simply twitched her nose and in her usual menacing voice told me to stop talking about ghosts. Or else.

The Bloke is a trained engineer. A very intelligent man with a scientific mind and a brilliant business acumen. “He would never believe in ghosts,” I began my defence. “He believes in science! Ghosts aren’t real, even Bitcoin isn’t real to him,” I said. “Besides, I am a poor story-teller,” I added. For The Bloke to believe there are paranormal activities in his house, the stories would have to be super compelling. Sure, we Chinese celebrate the seventh month as the month of the hungry ghosts but that is simply folklore – a good story for kids to be extra careful when they venture outside their homes in the northern summer to play. “Have there been any paranormal experiences there lately?” I asked The Mrs. In fact, there have been more unexplained ‘happenings’ in our own house and she knows it. There is of course no legitimate reason to fear ghosts, if in fact they do exist. From my many experiences, they are only playful and mischievous and perhaps even more frightened than us to stumble upon our presence. I know the feeling. I have occasionally given myself a fright when I accidentally looked into the bathroom mirror. None has ever threatened me physically or shooed me away. Logically, they would deem my house to be theirs, right? Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Do we not say a person or place is possessed? “They could therefore quite convincingly argue that legally, they are the true owners of our house,” I closed my defence quite spiritedly, “Pardon the pun,” I added unwisely. “Do you know how silly you sound?” The Mrs sneered and waved me away. I knew better than to hang around when she was in that mood when her words were mostly contentious.

“What boogeyman?” I asked The Bloke. He looked at me in disbelief and must have felt I was really stupid. I was the one to confirm what his wife saw. I may have called ‘it’ “a man in white” or a “white-haired man” but it was clear to him I meant ‘ghost’. The Bloke would remain scientific throughout and call it the ‘boogeyman’ instead. The Lady had seen a strange apparition last Sunday afternoon as we partied raucously under the pergola of their house. From the corner of her eye, she was sure she saw a white-haired man in a white shirt stopped at the side gate of her front garden and suddenly disappeared. She rushed inside her house, her footsteps sounding more and more like Murray’s. She got to the front room and peered out surreptitiously from her Queen Anne window. Why surreptitiously? Who is the owner of the house? I thought to myself. Their English Baroque style curved bay window is a beautifully crafted work of exquisite timber trimmed with small decorative leadlight window panes above large simple panes of glass. There was no white-haired man to be seen anywhere. Biting her lips unintentionally, she winced from the sudden bleeding to her moist lips that were smeared with lip balm just moments earlier.

No strange white-haired man in sight.

I was ruthlessly but deservedly mauled by The Mrs whilst still in bed this morning. My stupid prank to childishly but falsely confirm The Lady’s sighting of the strange man was well, stupid. No, I did not witness the apparition or ghost or whatchamacallit thingamajig. “Why did you say you did?!” The Mrs repeated for the tenth time. Yes, it felt like an interrogation and no matter how I tried to summon my intellect to come up with a clever retort, I remained silent. I was dumb to play-act and therefore dumb-founded by my own stupidity. “Telling fibs about ghosts is childish!” The Mrs kept stabbing me with her truthful words. “It is your fault if they sell their house!” she said accusingly, making her final judgement unambiguous and ominous. I knew I had to act quickly and spend more time next door lurking in their garden. Hopefully, the boogeyman will happen to see my reflection on the pond one day and that would be enough to frighten ‘it’ away.

Finally, no more boogeyman here.

Traits & Portraits

Nothing has worked for me. I thought the idea to write about my Lasallian schoolmates in the style of the Water Margin stories was a fantastic one. In Shi Naian’s epic, each character, be it of simple and modest background or great and heroic stature comes alive as I followed their journeys from normal everyday living to their eventual tales of heroism and triumph over the corrupt and greedy. I thought I could copy this recipe and write about the traits of my buddies and their ancestors, and follow their journeys from impoverished lands, typically China or India, to the green pastures of South East Asia and beyond. I dangled the carrot of posterity for them and their parents if I could spin their stories and make them come alive in a book. Who would not want their brief time on this world extended ‘forever’ in the State Library, I suggested. As if that was not enough, I enticed them with an oil painting each for those who were willing to share their stories. Who would not want to own a portrait of themselves painted by a famous artist, right? Anne Koh is a Malaysian artist. She enjoys attending concerts by leading orchestras and conductors all over the world and is an avid supporter of chamber music. She hopes to capture and share some of the beautiful and poignant moments of the music world through her paintings. Although it is visual art, in her mind it is ‘auditory art’. The movements and emotions of the music she hears are reflected through her colours and strokes. Her works are a mix of abstract, expressionism and Impressionism.

Anne Koh, the artist who has painted the portraits of those willing to let me write their stories.

Last night, my neighbours held a party at their house. They were great hosts. The wine flowed all night and the food was simply divine. The Bloke boldly claimed without any exaggeration, “This food is better than any restaurant’s!” I have so much to learn from him. One must always remember to heap praise on one’s spouse. Although he mistakenly thought all the dishes were cooked by his wife, The Lady, I did not have the heart to tell him the yummiest dishes were The Mrs’ creations. The Mrs and The Lady are sisters. They both have deep-set twinkling eyes that laugh, smiles that melt any heart of stone, and hearts made of kindness and love. In their late teens and especially in their early twenties, both sisters were beautiful sirens, therefore head-turners and heart-breakers. Luckily, I did not meet either of them then. They speak with the same accents, Miri and Hakka and have similar traits too. Both love to talk about art and the art of painting. Both can be talkative when the subjects suit their traits. The Mrs is more prone to talk about politics and wars – despite knowing never to talk about race, religion and politics at a party. She is more adept at story-telling and making people laugh at her jokes, crude ones or otherwise. Being her husband, I have learned not to debate her about geopolitics and macro-economics. These subjects are her forte at present and she will win every debate, sometimes by raising her voice. The louder she is, the more convincing she becomes. The Lady is often soft-spoken and low-key. You will need to talk about art and artists to make her come alive or she would quite readily disappear into the background amongst people she isn’t familiar with. Both of them are great cooks. I say that because I want to continue to enjoy their cooking but also because it is true. The Mrs was a fantastic magician when our kids were growing up. Those boys never stopped eating, and who could blame them? The meals she produced, seemingly effortlessly and always quickly, were better than any restaurant’s. Hey presto! And suddenly there would be a big spread of food on our dining table. Ours was a family of seven, including her parents. How did she work those long hours as a shopkeeper, on her feet all day, and come home to produce her amazing meals, day in and day out? Amazing. And yet, she did more. As a daughter-in-law, she would cook for my parents, at least once a week. Dinners in those days were feasts. Did I help in the chores? Barely. My focus was to bond with my father. I left home at 19, got married at 22 and became a father at 24. I had the need to catch up with lost time and get to know my mum and dad. So, when they came to visit weekly, I gave them my full attention, Pa especially. He was like the chairman of my business, wanting to know the ins and outs of my financial plans and business goals. But, what captivated his attention the most was my sons’ progress and success. He enjoyed every little detail about his grandsons. Undoubtedly, they made him a proud grandfather.

The conversations and laughter flowed non-stop last night. My hosts, upon my suggestion, invited the Scalzi’s too. They had not met John and Anne. Anne or Anna meaning gracious, i.e. God favours her. Indeed, God favours all the Annes in this world. Anne Scalzi is also a beautiful woman. The Mrs and I met her through our first son who found their son to be his pillar of strength and confidence in kindy. As beautiful as Sophia Loren, and as sophisticated as Julie Andrews, I assumed Anne was Italian. An Australian, born and raised in Egypt, but her parents were Maltese. When asked where she was from, by a colleague in the hospital where she worked, that was how she replied. He meant from which department after she had told him in full description her origins. The Bloke, being house-proud, enthusiastically showed them his beautiful house and garden. The Lady, who had a big hand in the design of the “resort-style” house, was busy in the kitchen. Otherwise, being the more house-proud of the two, she would have taken over the duties of a tour-guide around their garden. I think she under-cooked the steam fish which was lightly fried first, so I later sent it back to the kitchen. When the Scalzi’s arrived, I was busy with the vermicelli vongole. All I had to do was warm it up so that The Mrs could pour garlic oil and spring onions onto it. John Scalzi later told me vermi meant ‘little worms’, especially parasitic ones. Trust the Italians to name their noodles little worms. Instead of little worms, the Mrs used dong fen, noodles made from mung beans. As I was tasked with heating up the clay pot of clams and noodles, I could not join in the ‘tour’ of the house. I had wanted to know what the Scalzi’s thought of the house design, because I had a hand in it too. The problem with modern-day kitchen appliances is that an induction cooktop is totally useless for a clay pot. So, I was consigned to the outside BBQ gas ring instead. From there, I observed that strangely, the Scalzi’s were attracted not by the beautiful resort-quality pond and garden fresco but by a portrait in the Lady’s art studio.

‘My pond’ that I look after every day, rain or shine, but it is located on my next door neighbour’s property.

John later told me his nostrils picked up the scent of durian and it was its alluring scent that led him into the room. The often-described smell of the King of tropical fruits, the durian, is pungent and rotten, like decaying onion, or an Asian open drain or rotting cheese. He was joking of course, but it was a painting in the studio that caught his full attention. The portrait that sat proudly there was that of an elderly woman enjoying a durian. Framed in Italian antique-style gold-colour metal, the painting captivated John who immediately recognised it was Ma. He had met Ma on a few occasions and even made the pergola of her house in the ’90s. I observed John studying the painting for a long time. Even when The Bloke was wanting to proceed to another room, another feature of his house, John did not budge. Like I was earlier in the evening, he was similarly entranced by the life-like painting.

The Lady’s portrait of my mother fully captures the spirit of obedience, respect, care and love of our elder. Ma is visibly content and happy with the thorny fruit in her hand. Her effort to hide her smile and contain her appreciation, whilst showing off the durian which she obviously is enjoying, emanates from typical Chinese culture of behaving with appropriate decorum given her hierarchical status as matriarch of her family. The formality of receiving food from her children who are not present in the painting is a strong symbol of filial piety, parental care on the one hand and of the ‘debt’ towards their elders on the other. Of all virtues, filial piety is the first 百善孝為先.

The concept of filial piety for the Chinese stems from the great sage, Confucius. The key word is 養/养, pinyin: yǎng, which means ‘feed’, or ‘raise’. It is therefore not surprising that food is a symbol often used to depict our love and respect for our elders, through feeding and looking after their needs when they need our support and care most.

Ma is at her radiant best, with pink healthy cheeks, wearing a smile that she could not hide – a smile that is highly infectious and showing a level of contentment that only Buddha could have achieved. Her head is draped in white curly hair, thick and lush way beyond her 98 years, and decorated with faded eyebrows. The frowns on her forehead were either very kindly erased by the artist or diminished by decades of treating every little trace of egg white from the shells of used eggs like Hazeline Snow on her face. Ma’s left eye is bigger than the right one, a double-lidded enhancement a side benefit from her cataract operation a few years ago. Typically, she is wearing five layers of clothing, the innermost layer well hidden. The only non moth-damaged layer is the outer garment, a burgundy-coloured cardigan. Her once-slender and smooth fingers are carefully holding a durian, minimising contact with the soft golden fruit so as not to damage its texture and shape.

Many people cannot appreciate the fragrance of the durian nor the exquisite taste. Curious about Egyptian food, I asked Anne what her favourite is. Without hesitating, she said she loves Molokhia. “What’s that?” I asked. “Mulukhiyah, Jew’s mallow,” she said. “What? How do you spell it?” I asked. John jumped in and spelt it slowly, “Y U C K” whilst attracting a stare from Anne which would have severely wounded him. From the way he described it, I gathered it must be as polarising and divisive as natto. The topic of conversation soon changed from repulsive food to repulsive restaurants. The Bloke who had been quietly enjoying a large chunk of the pork belly suddenly sat up as if a switch had been pressed on. “Eastern Gardens!” he said, quite loudly. Over a yumcha lunch in that restaurant – his first and only time there, he found a staple in his dimsum. Being an avid food photographer that he is, he proceeded to take a photo of the said staple that was almost heading towards his mouth. The boss man was immediately standing behind him. “What do you think you are doing?” “WHY, WHY, WHY you take evidence?” he asked in a heavy Hongkonger accent. “Do you want to sue me?” the bossman asked rudely.

The Mrs continued the story for The Bloke. “Yeah, only cowards pretend to sound tough by being rude,” she said. She had a sales assistant called ‘Fonz’ who styled himself in the mould of ‘Fonzie’ in Happy Days. Undeniably popular with all the girls who frequented our shop, Fonz thought of himself as an Italian stallion and therefore acted like one. But he was no Rambo when there was a hint of physical violence. When The Mrs was confronted by an angry and unreasonable customer who demanded a refund for a car CD player that he had damaged, Fonz was nowhere to be found despite the loud threats of the raucous and aggressive customer. As soon as the customer left, Fonz appeared from behind the display of Penrite engine oils and gave an Italian salute to the customer who had already disappeared down the mall. “Fungulu!”, he yelled. “Don’t let me see him again, I will KEAL him!” he added in a strong Calabrese accent. John raised his eyebrows as he looked at me. “Oh, that is a very rude word!” he whispered.

“Rude?” The Mrs asked even though John didn’t mean to be overheard. “Did you know what our Bali driver said to us all day?” she asked. Decades ago, we negotiated with a cab driver and booked him for two full days at an agreed price. It was then that we learned that the Balinese pronounce F instead of P. I left The Mrs to tell the story since she has a knack for using the F word. “Let me fark here, under the tree,” she imitated the driver. “I’ll drop you there. I know a good place around here to fark,” she continued. “I’ll come back in an hour’s time whilst I fark in that corner,” she said whilst visibly enjoying herself. “Not to worry, I know all the good spots to fark. Fark here and fark there, I do that all day” she added.

Dessert was pandan cake and coffee. A welcome change from our conversation.

My Hosts And The Ghosts

My next door neighbours are back! They went overseas in January 2020 and could not return due to the ravages of the pandemic that hit the world a month later. Stranded there for such a long time meant their beautiful house here has been vacant all the while. We did not have the heart to let the garden languish without the love that any garden deserves. Did I say their house was vacant for two and a bit years? Sorry, my mistake. Of course, it wasn’t. It was not difficult to discover other residents had taken over the house. In the first year, the exoskeletons of dead cockroaches littered their floor, a result of the black Cockroach baits that they left around the place. There were other residents too, some only left their faeces for me to clean up and others built their homes in the house. Yeah, spiders. I never minded these little critters; to me they are extraordinary architects and engineers and they do us the favour of killing flies and other annoying insects such as mozzies. “Why, we should love spiders!” I said. But, I also know that cobwebs are a necessary item in horror movies. Every Hollywood movie about a haunted house must have cobwebs to stir our fear. Every script will have the eventual victims in a dark dungeon or cave or an unused attic peeling cobwebs of their faces. We equate creaky floor boards, dusty bookshelves and cobwebs with an abandoned house. In an alien world, humans are trapped in webs and then wrapped and cocooned for later consumption. Spiders are scary if you think about how they eat their prey alive. Yes, by biting with their fangs to paralyse them and then sucking them dry. The horror of being sucked dry with nothing left of us bar a shrivelled up shell is a recurring nightmare for some.

A ghostly spider! Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng

The Mrs and I have been looking after their house here in their absence. I was curious to see if time had aged them as it has aged their garden. The plants are no longer baby ones fresh from the nursery. The Granny Smith tree, although only slightly taller than me, has produced over 500 green apples this year. The dwarfed Persimmon tree is similarly productive. Lemons, plums, nectarines and Red Delicious, cherries and oranges add colour and variety to our harvest. Oops, ‘our’? My mistake. Theirs but they were not here to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Their standard roses are no longer scrawny and thin, their vigorous growth and stunning blooms this year have been the pride of our neighbourhood so much so that others from surrounding suburbs have been known to stop by to admire.

They arrived when the sun was setting and the cool breeze brushing the treetops of the grand old gum trees in the park across the road swayed a Hawaiian welcome as they stepped out of the taxi. The kookaburras broke into a joyous chorus and the magpies chimed in promptly. The growing shadows were kind to the couple. They both looked svelte with their visceral fat playing hide and seek with my eyes as the shadows loomed larger by the second. “Wow, they look younger and slimmer!” I thought to myself. In the two years they were away, over 6 million people have died from the pandemic and millions more were long Covid sufferers. The Bloke actually looked younger and moved with ease as he effortlessly transferred the mountain of luggage from the taxi to his garage. With a taut body and bulging biceps, his movements belied his years. I have seen him in a supine position on his white leather sofa many times – that is when he is most alluring to his wife, The Lady, who unfailingly goes to him with water or fruits or whatever he fancied.

The Lady, still lithe and effervescent, broke into a sweet smile. She swayed her body joyously but not in synchronisation with the Hawaiian sway of the breeze. Observing Covid protocols, I refrained from giving her a welcome hug. No handshakes, no hugs, and no pecks on her cheeks. Usually forcing grumpy smiles on my neighbours, I uncharacteristically gave her one of my rare honest smiles. The Mrs could not contain herself and broke the social distancing rule. Fair enough, after all, The Lady is her sister. Younger by a few years, The Lady was the most sensible. She said they won’t be mingling with us for at least four days, even if the PCR tests showed negative. She would break her own rule the very next day and before the week was out, they would have invited us over for breakfasts and dinners on several occasions. On the third morning of their arrival, we had breakfast at The Pavilion. Our first sumptuous meal there in over two years was a far cry from the mundane regime of breaking my daily fasts after 16 hours. Having a daily bowl of oats made interesting with the addition of honey, home-dried apples and sultanas, assorted nuts, seeds and yoghurt had been my proudest act of discipline. That got chucked away that morning. I broke my Intermittent Fasting routine an hour early and ordered a Spanish breakfast of chorizo and eggs.

No famish with a Spanish breakfast

It was on the following morning that The Bloke and The Lady told me about their ghost stories. The Bloke was excited about the recipe he had recently discovered. A true Sarawakian, he loves Kolo mee for breakfast. For a Penangite, I did not find Kolo mee to be anything super special. In Penang, the street food mecca of the world, there are so many noodle dishes that are simply divine. Kolo mee, for me, was similar to our dry version of wonton mee. The Mrs, of course, very quickly changed my mind when I first said it. She has that art of persuasion that I have never learned. Ok, ok. Kolo mee is so much better! The ingredients are pretty much identical except the wonton noodles are made to taste ‘Q Q’ (Taiwanese for springy) by adding lye water to them. The Mrs knew best as she lectured me about the health hazards of consuming lye water over a long period. “It’s corrosive! It’s poison,” she said, frightening me.

Kolo mee for me

The Bloke has a scientific mind. An engineer, no less. To him, everything in the world can be explained by science. “Eventually,” he hastened to add. That made me less disagreeable, as I was about to take TCM, traditional Chinese medicines, as a subject to dispel his notion that science explains everything. Even today, as China uses TCM to treat Covid cases, there is much hysteria in Western media decrying its use. Animal cruelty, a threat to animal extinction, herbal remedies that harm rather than heal due to negative side effects, toxicity, heavy metals, microbial organisms, etc, etc are repeatedly argued against the use of TCM. It’s untested, it’s folklore, it’s risky, so they keep saying even though the Chinese have been using them for thousands of years. Western medicines may be superior, but they are patented by the drug labs and therefore are unaffordable for developing countries. Similarly, Western vaccines cost a lot more too than ‘untested’ Chinese vaccines. Everything has become geo-political these days. Have the Western media ever stopped and consider what would happen if China was forced to conform to their ways and standards and coerced to use Western vaccines and treatment drugs instead? Then, the world would have very quickly run out of vaccines and other drugs during the height of the pandemic. Would they then have argued that China had been hoarding all available vaccines and drugs at the expense of the West? Today, the Chinese share their affordable medicines with many poor countries, making them much more accessible for people. Western media, of course, have been arguing that China is using soft diplomacy to win over or bribe the poorer countries.

The Bloke was quick to disregard my hint that their house is home to a cheeky ghost. He may have forgotten about the early episodes when they first moved in. Episodes that I do not conveniently forget.

“Remember how your slippers moved from your bedroom to the dining table one night? I asked. “Or how the tap suddenly gushed out a raging torrent of water?” I continued. “And the time when the dining chairs moved a few inches away from the dining table, by themselves?”

Silence. The Bloke would not concede the remote possibility that his scientific mind would fail to provide proper logic or reasons. He only gave me silence. He raised his head as if to speak but no words came out of his mouth.

“So, what is it this time?” he asked with a tinge of exasperation and impatience.

“Well..” I started defensively. I began to explain how a water pump in a pond should progressively over time become clogged with mud and debris, and therefore will become less efficient in pumping a body of water from A to B. “It would be visible to the eyes,” I said. “The flow of water will slow dramatically and the waterfalls will lose their effect,” I explained scientifically. But, this was not what had been my experience of late. Rather than weakening, the waterfalls had been raging, creating white water, frothing the stream white. The filter box had overflowed on numerous occasions and even the outlet hose had come off despite the tight clamp that was screwed to the maximum. “This is the opposite of what science will predict!” I concluded triumphantly. After we finished our Kolo mee and permanently tarnished our teeth with the extra black Malaysian coffee, we stepped outside to the pond for The Bloke to get a better appreciation of the problem. It is a problem alright, as each time the hose freed itself from its clamp, I had to wade into the water to refit it. The water was becoming colder by the day as the Sun prepared its journey from autumn to winter. No word of a lie, but The Bloke fixed this prank by the ghost in a matter of a few minutes. He put his hand into a place where no one was prepared to put. Being knowledgeable of the dangerous critters that lurk in an Aussie garden, no sane person would shove their hands under a rock blindly. That was indeed what The Bloke did. He pushed his hand into a deep crevice between two rocks that formed the highest of four mini waterfalls along the stream. With a fecund imagination, I saw a snake lunged at his hand. I also saw a grotesque thing with the sharpest saw teeth bite into it. The Bloke actually bled, but from cutting his finger against the clamp. He pulled out a large clump of vegetation from underneath the rock where the waterfall sprung into the first pond. “What the?” I uttered in disbelief. Why would grass grow in water without sunlight?” “And such a thick growth too!” I added.

I concluded that it was the work of the ghost. Science could not explain why there would be such thick vegetation in the darkness of the crevice. Anyway, it turned out that was how the ghost blocked the flow of water, and as the pump continued to move water into the filter box, the blockage inevitably caused it to overflow. But, it still did not explain why by having channelled the bulk of the water via a tee-valve back into the pond to prevent the filter box from overflowing, it would eventually still overflow after a week or so. The Bloke was happy with himself as he walked away, singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, made famous by Elvis Presley.

“Wise men say, only fools rush in…”

Elvis Presley

Some Facts in Halifax

April 10 2022 was just five days ago. My dad passed away exactly fifteen years ago. “FIFTEEN YEARS AGO?” I asked aloud, not comprehending how time passed so quickly. What have I achieved since that fateful night? I held Pa’s hand for a long time, as I watched the laboured breaths of the dying man weakening by the hour. There would be no tearful laments, no cries of anguish or wails of regrets. Those in the small room knew to remain calm, and allow our patriarch a smooth transition to the next world, wherever that destination would be, if at all. The Buddhist chants being played on the cassette player had a soothing and calming effect in the room. Unknown to the others present, inside my mind, the permanence of death felt jarring to me as I contrasted the teachings of the Philosophy about the impermanence of life. Anicca taught me that everything changes in life, nothing lasts forever. I suppose that is the universal truth. Even death is impermanent – Jesus proved it. Today, being Good Friday, is a timely reminder. Rising from the dead on the third day, his resurrection was a promise of hope for mankind. Miracles do happen. The one thing that still bothers me about this story was the sacrifice. God forbade the sacrifice of animals yet sacrificed His only son to save us. Luckily, the sacrifice of the Holy Son was for only three days. Being all-knowing, He would have known that too. A short sacrifice that we all can stomach. A permanent sacrifice of a child would have been too difficult for any father. I knew when Pa took his last breath. The final release from all the suffering, the years of being bound to his bed, the ignominy of being totally dependent on the nursing staff who did everything for him including wiping his bum. Pa was an independent man, a self-made and self-taught man, a dignified man. The nurses did their best for the residents in the nursing home, of course, but usually, there was no way of protecting their dignity when they were incontinent or if they needed their faeces dug out from their butt holes or if they needed to be lifted up or down from their beds like cattle in an abattoir. The last breath was a release of all the pain and suffering for Pa. Finally freed of his burden. Equally, that could have easily applied to me, although I never saw my father as a burden. Never!

Five days ago, we met at the Zhulin Buddhist temple in Ottoway to pray for our patriarch. I was introduced to a lovely girl from America. Catherine, a nephew’s girlfriend, found the whole proceedings quite liberating. In what ought to have been a ceremony steeped in tradition and customs, there were none. Most of the relatives refused the offer to burn joss sticks except for our matriarch who did not think observing the time-tested tradition of praying with joss sticks was detrimental to the environment. True to form, I was wishy-washy; in my indecision, I asked for one joss stick to pay my respects to Pa. Seemingly in my mind, that was a fair compromise between the modern-day ESG concerns and the ‘ancient’ practice of praying to the departed or spirits with joss sticks. After all, the joss incense or deus incense had always been the aid or portal to spiritual communication with deus, latin for God. A couple of the attendees were Christians, and they refrained from not just holding a joss stick but also from entering the temple; they sat on a bench outside the temple whilst the rest of us went inside to pray. Apparently, the couple viewed that paying respects to Pa would be interpreted as worshipping our ancestors, a no-no in their church. Catherine, a vegan, was surprised that the proceedings lasted only a few shakes of the joss sticks by Ma and a short solemn moment when the attendees had their own private conversations with the departed. The announcement after the prayers was also surprising for Catherine. Most buddhists do not eat beef, the origin of that adherence came from the influence of Hinduism. A vegan, she was looking forward to a vegetarian lunch at the temple but no, lunch would be pho beef noodle soup at a popular joint nearby.

During lunch, Catherine said that she was originally an Aussie but her family moved to Colorado when she was a child. She spent about two years in Joffrey Ballet School in New York honing her skills as a ballerina. I suddenly saw her poise and posture and remarked that I could see she was classically trained. “America. Never a dull moment, in New York especially,” I said with a forced smile. “Really? Nothing exciting happened to me in New York,” Catherine replied. I told her my first visit to America was flying on the inaugural Airbus A380 flight from Adelaide to Los Angeles with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. From LA, they flew to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the 2009 G’Day USA. Still youngish-looking then, I had neatly cropped short hair and a clean shaven face. Pleasant but dull and nondescript, I was rudely interrogated at the arrival desk at the LAX airport. “What is the purpose of your visit? bellowed the burly Customs officer. Do I look like the Taliban, I asked myself. Why am I being treated like I am unwelcomed in the Land of the Free? “I am having a short holiday here, sir,” I said softly. Too softly. “Do not make me ask you again. Why are you here?” the officer asked in a stern voice loud enough to attract the attention of another officer who hurried over as a back-up for any potential excitement. “I am travelling with the orchestra,” I tried again. Bad mistake. I was forced to explain what orchestra and what instrument I played. “You do not play any instrument? SO, I ASK AGAIN. WHY ARE YOU HERE?” the petulant officer used a voice that treated me like I was a schoolboy caught for truancy.

Eager to have our first Chinese meal in almost a week, The Mrs and I visited Chinatown on our first morning in New York. Our pace quickened as the aroma of roasted duck reached our hungry nostrils. As we were about to cross the road to the side where the restaurants were beckoning, a sharp piercing whistle shrill filled the cold January air. The pedestrians in front came to an abrupt halt and all we could hear was a loud commotion. “DO NOT CROSS THE ROAD,” yelled a man with authority. “Quick, quick,” The Mrs called out and tugged at my icy-cold hand. I had left my fine leather gloves in the bathroom after I detoured to have a last-minute pee. “STOP! STOP!” yelled another. All the cars on the road had stopped moving, both ends of the street blocked by wailing police cars. Cops were rushing out from their vehicles and running to our side of the pavement. “Scuse us, scuse us,” The Mrs said as she tried to push her way towards the front of the crowd. She could not get very far, as I refused to be tugged along. So, she jumped to see above the heads but her efforts were quite pathetic. She was never athletic in school, what made her think she could jump any higher fifty years later? So, she crouched down low to catch a glimpse of the action through peoples’ legs. “Many cops! It must be a movie being made,” she said excitedly. “Oh good! Maybe we will appear in it. How exciting!” I said wildly. And then, we heard the loud gunshots. POP! POP! POP! They sounded real! The Mrs saw piles of bank notes on the ground near her. “Oh no,” she said with a sudden fear in her voice. “There’s blood everywhere,” she continued whilst recoiling herself to hide behind a big guy. Minutes passed and the cops hollered at all of us to move along. “Walk across the road please,” a strong voice yelled out. As I stepped off the pavement, I could see red splashes on the ground. “They are not blood but ink,” I said to The Mrs, using my years of watching CSI to impress her. It was apparent then that it was not a movie being filmed but a foiled bank robbery in which the anti-theft device exploded red paint all over the banknotes, rendering them useless to the robbers.

Our next visit to America was a quick stop-by in New York for our son’s concert in Carnegie Hall. The momentous occasion was not lost to me, by then an old man. It was April 2018. The 11th anniversary of Pa’s passing was celebrated with a concert in the hallowed venue. I was sure that Pa was there with us. I knew Pa would have been so proud to witness the fulfilment of his prediction. When he was alive, he often said his grandsons would become famous one day. “Their fame would spread to as far away as America,” he said about his grandsons when they were still young boys. In the morning after the concert, my son surprised me by taking us to Tarisio, a most reputable auction house that specialises in selling fine stringed instruments and bows. He knew I loved visiting lutheries and watching luthiers at work. In London, he took me to Florian Leonhard’s shop where we tried out quite a few exquisite instruments, each valued in the millions and Brompton’s, the leading auction house for fine instruments in Europe where they had laid out rows and rows of instruments about to be auctioned off that week. I had read about Tarisio’s great collections in Strad magazines that I subscribed to, so we walked at a very fast pace, sometimes even outpacing some locals. I felt like a kid being taken to a lolly shop that morning. Because of my son, I was treated like a VIP. “Biscuits? Coffee?” as the dapper young salesman in a tailored suit invited us into a room where a few instruments were already waiting for us. What the salesman didn’t anticipate was that I couldn’t play the violin at all. Not only that, I did not dare to tune the violin either, so pricey was it that I trembled when asked to hold it. Seconds later, I broke a string. Please don’t ask me why or how, it might have been a rather used string. In trying to rescue the string as it flew off the bridge, I knocked over the plastic cup of piping hot coffee with the bow. It would not be the least surprising if that incident was the first and only time for the esteemed auction house to experience such a debacle.

With the greats, Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals looking from above.

In New York, I grabbed the chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art – twice, but even so, I failed to see all that I wanted to see. The second-day pass was mostly wasted as my travelling companions and I had lost the whole morning stranded in our Airbnb apartment which flooded overnight from a blocked toilet. The stench was awful, all the towels and linen available failed to soak up the brown water that had flowed into the kitchen and threatened to invade our bedrooms. We dared not contact the building manager as he had already asked us the first time we stepped into the lobby if we were renting it from Airbnb. There were large ugly signs on the front door of the apartment and on the lifts warning anyone illegally staying in the tower would be evicted under the anti-Airbnb rules of the community. The owner/manager of the unit did not respond to our frantic calls for help all night. So, we stayed in our rooms, unable to even get a drink from the kitchen. Our reluctance to get our feet wet with brown water and the growing sensation of panic from a full bladder added to my angst. It was almost mid-morning before the manager of the property turned up with a team of cleaners. The Mrs had dozed off in boredom. I had ventured into the bathroom on tip-toes and peed in the shower cubicle as a last resort to save myself some embarrassment. I heard an ear-piercing screech from our bedroom. The Mrs had woken up to find a big black man standing by the bedroom door. Swishing at the brown water with my feet, I rushed and challenged the stranger. “How did you get in here?” I bellowed. “With my keys,” he said without a hint of irony. He was the manager we had been waiting for.

A cleaner overheard me discussing with The Mrs about asking for a discount for the inconvenience and lost time. “In New York, you do not ask for a refund or discount,” the burly cleaner said. The Mrs reminded me of the incident two nights earlier when we were chased down an alley by two angry waiters who complained about the ten percent tip I had rewarded them with. “Fair enough,” I said. “We can’t argue with people who may be carrying guns,” I added.

The other reason to be in New York was Francis had always wanted to make a trip to Halifax. He studied there in his teens and had always wanted to show his wife, Anne, where he got his Engineering degree. Francis had often described how spartan his life was in those days, how he used to freeze his food on the window ledge outside his bedroom window on the first floor. He and his brother could not afford a fridge during those student days. Anne, who is The Mrs’ sister, listened to his stories wide-eyed and felt with great pride whenever her hero retold his stories of great sacrifice and suffering in a God-forsaken place like Halifax. Yes, I say it’s a God-forsaken place as that was where most of the bodies and wreckage of the Titanic were washed ashore. We even visited the cemetery where they were buried. The one tomb that tugged at Anne’s heart the most was that of Jack Dawson’s whose story will live forever after being so brilliantly told in James Cameron’s romantic movie named after the unsinkable ship.

When we arrived in the wee hours of the morning at Halifax Stanfield Airport in Nova Scotia, we were all bleary-eyed, not from the two-hour flight but from the ungodly hour when the tiny plane took off. You know I am the type who hates flying, especially flying in tiny planes. Once we flew in a tiny three or four-seater plane. I sat just behind the pilot and could see what he saw and that was immediately after seeing a Bible in the open compartment next to me. It was the first time in my life that I was scared to see a Bible, as if a bad omen was about to happen. The scariest moment was at lift-off when the sight of the ground racing at such high speed coupled with the loud shaking of the cockpit was terrifying. We took off from Townsville in Northern Queensland to look at the sixty thousand hectares of land we were asked to assess for a distant relative. We said no, but he bought it anyway. I digress. The tiny plane that took off from New York carried no more than a dozen passengers. Very tiny. Very scary. I was the first to step off the plane and after a long walk on the tarmac, I was the first to arrive at the Customs desk.

“What is the purpose of your visit here?” a friendly voice asked. Ah, much more welcoming, not an interrogation. I liked Canada instantly.

“Oh, I am here for a holiday with my family. There are four of us. The main reason is my brother-in-law has long dreamt of showing us where he used to live here and the university from which he graduated,” I replied in detail, seeing there was no one waiting in the queue. The officer smiled, and said “Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed my passport back.

Next to arrive at the desk was The Mrs. “What is the purpose of your visit here?” the same officer asked. (There was only one officer) I was standing just a few yards away and could hear the whole conversation. “Oh, I am here for a holiday with my sister. There are four of us. The main reason is my sister’s husband, Francis, has long wanted to show us where he lived here and he is very proud of the university from where he graduated. His bedroom was on the upper storey and from the outside window ledge, he used to store his frozen food. We are here to accompany him,” The Mrs replied in greater detail. The officer smiled, and said “Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed The Mrs’ passport back to her.

Francis was behind two other passengers. When his turn came, he was asked the same question. “What is the purpose of your visit here?” asked the officer. “Ah, so you are Francis,” he remarked as he looked up from the passport he was examining. “Oh, I am here for a holiday with my wife, and her sister and the husband. There are four of us. The main reason is I have always wanted to return to Halifax. This is where I grew up and got my Engineering degree. I promised my wife not long after we married that one day, I would like to return here and show her where I lived and how I survived the harsh winters. I am very proud of my university, you know,” Francis said to the officer. The officer smiled, and said “Welcome back. Enjoy your holiday,” as he handed Francis’ passport back to him.

The three of us waited a long while, but there was no sight of Anne. So, we decided not to wait any longer, the wiser action being to go ahead and collect our luggage. After securing all our luggages and making sure we had not left anything behind, we saw Anne huffed and puffed as she hurried towards us. “What happened?” Francis asked her. “I had to run back to the plane to find my phone,” she said. “and oh, the customs guy was so rude,” she continued. “How come?” I asked in disbelief. “He asked me why I am here, and before I could answer, he said, “Oh I know, I know. You’re Francis’ wife and you’re here to see where he used to live and admire his university,” the officer said as if he knows my whole life story,” Anne said in exasperation.

Some facts in Halifax

My Sidekick Is A Psychic

It is fair to say I have remained unconvinced and therefore little impressed with those who claim to possess some special powers that transcend logic or contravene natural laws. I hasten to add that I have hardly met a clairvoyant or a soothsayer of any note. Disbelieving in the powers of a psychic has meant the absence of psychics around me. It is logical. I suppose that if we do not believe in something, that thing tends not to exist in our world. The opposite is also true. If we allow our mind to believe in something, that something will surely be everywhere. It is thus not surprising that I see ghosts everywhere; because I believe they exist. Sorry, I don’t see them. I feel their presence. You know, that sudden chill from a sudden movement or sound, or the darting of a “dark cloud” in the room usually from the periphery of my vision although once it appeared right in front of me, or the weird sensation of feeling “someone” was looking over my shoulder reading my work on the screen last night. Talking about ghosts…..we all know that the pump in a pond eventually gets clogged up with debris and mud and the flow of water through the filter box will dramatically slow down over time if one does not clean it. Earlier this week, the filter box on my neighbour’s property overflowed and nearly drowned the lemon tree next to it. I had done nothing to the pond’s filtration system or changed its ecosystem. It is the same old Made-in-China pump bought a few years ago for under $300 when the overly expensive German-made one konked out in under twelve months. The shop reneged on a replacement claiming I voided the warranty. I digress. The cheap pump inexplicably became more powerful this week. It is weird! The undercurrent, previously unnoticeable, is now visible. The fish no longer leisurely chomp the pellets at the big end of the pond from where I dispense their food. They are now chasing the floating pellets that are being carried along the pond to the other end. The massive increase in the volume of water being circulated is causing the filter to overflow. Believing in ghosts, I had every reason to believe this was the work of one. I accept that there can be a more rational explanation. If I didn’t believe in ghosts, what scientific reason would convince me? None!

Suddenly the penny dropped. This could be why my friends were disappointed that I couldn’t find God, despite their most persuasive arguments and despite opening my heart and mind to invite God into my life, He never appeared. I have never felt that warm glow or that sudden flood of love that announces His arrival. There was no apparition, no spiritual awakening. So, I stopped thinking about God. Many turn to religion in their darkest moments, when hope is a distant memory, when all they can do is drop to their knees and surrender. Surrender to God. Everyone will face such a test, how dire it is depends on their appetite for risk and ability to handle stress or fear. I have had my share of challenges although none that was an existential threat. At my darkest hour, I calculated that the worst outcome for me would be to lose everything I owned except my house. So, although a horrifying thought, it was palatable given the circumstances. So, I didn’t turn to God for help. That would disgust me. Turning to God only when I need Him is akin to using someone and calling him a friend only when he is needed. So, all my life, I have failed to see or feel any signs of God. To see God and to know God, I will need to first of all discover Him by chance or luck, in other words. Those who know God are the lucky ones. Maybe it is the same phenomenon as suddenly seeing women pushing prams on the streets when The Mrs was pushing our first born in one or noticing people with twins when we had our twins. Similarly, I did not notice there were so many people walking their dogs until my son got Murray, his dog. This frequency illusion is known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. When a new concept or thing is new to me, suddenly I see it pop up everywhere. God is supposedly everywhere, maybe one day He will pop up everywhere too.

When I was a young boy, my mum showed me Datok Kong’s abode whilst returning from the wet market. The wooden house, no bigger than a dog’s kennel, was painted red to match a red Chinese roof with a typical hip-and-gable construction. It was decorated with golden-yellow Chinese words, a banner of sorts to tell the world it was the house of Tua Pek Kong. There was also that compulsory accessory – a dusty joss urn overfilled with ash. Next to it was a small bunch of bananas which to me, must have been his favourite fruit. I did not need it spelled out to me that Tua Pek Kong aka Datok Kong loved only bananas for I did not see any other offering of fruit. Ma told me never to simply walk past it without acknowledging his presence. That would be considered rude and disrespectful. “When you see an elderly person, you must greet that person by his or her title, and ask whether they have had a full meal,” Ma grounded into me. “Gao ja, Ahchek. Lu jiak pa liao boey?” (Good morning, Uncle. Have you eaten a full meal?) So, I had to show the same respect for that unseen Datok. “You must pray to Datok Kong whenever you walk past his shrine,” Ma said, every time we were approaching it. “Stand straight, do not slouch, place both your palms together, all fingers point to the sky, and bow,” Ma continued. I was also told never to pee near it. “Something dreadful will happen to you,” she warned me. I thought maybe I would lose my prized possession, my penis. So, I grew up making sure that Datok Kong never got to see my wee. Once I was introduced to it, I never failed to see it everywhere. There! Another Datok Kong’s shrine and another, and another, and another…. They were everywhere, in every prominent corner of the nearby suburbs. Some had lots of gold trimmings, some were quite spartan but all with a dusty urn coated with joss ash. So many little huts for so many Datok Kongs? Or for the one and only? I have yet to discover the answer to this question. It is likely true that this spirit, although widely revered or at least respected by minions in many parts of Asia, cannot be contented with a such a humble abode when his is dwarfed by magnificent cathedrals, golden cupolas, pagodas and temples of great deities in magnitude and grandness. Maybe that is why we have to tread carefully when we pass one. He is not impressed. I still harbour the idea that Datok Kong continues to be upset to this day with the tiny huts he gets and he still takes his wrath out on young boys who pee near him.

But, there are others who negotiate with Datok Kong to appease him. “They would do that through a psychic – a shaman or spirit medium,” The Cook said.

“Folks would usually scout around for a decrepit Datok Kong shrine, the more neglected, the better. The trick was to negotiate with him to rebuild the shrine in exchange for prize-winning numbers contained in folded paper,” The Cook started his lecture using his professional voice.

“Sometimes, it may not be actual numbers, but a saying or riddle that points to the hidden numbers,” Typhoon added. “One must know how to summon Datok Kong and also how to send him off politely after the dialogue. All promises must be fulfilled, otherwise those present will face trouble,” Typhoon continued sinisterly. If the shaman misinterpreted the message or riddle and arrived at the wrong numbers, the agreed deal must still be honoured. No if’s no but’s.

“Datuk Kongs are not benevolent spirits, on the contrary, they are the outlaws of the spirit world, not beholden to the laws and hierarchy other Chinese deities are subject to. What it means is that they can be tricksters but it also means that they can dispense wealth which is not theirs to give.”

“And in return for the numbers, their demands can be onerous to fulfil.
Hence the negotiation.
For example, it can be as simple as a sacrificial white rooster but what is left unsaid is that it has to be completely white, 100% white feathers which is a physical impossibility. So, the shaman will start to negotiate on your behalf, a win-win deal. They are hardly ever straight, so if someone were to ask for numbers, I’d strongly advise against. There’s no free ticket,” The Cook continued to impress with his knowledge of dealings with the spiritual world.

“What would happen if one reneges on the contract?” someone asked.

“Folks have been known to die. It is a serious business,” The Cook concluded his lecture.

The first bloke I met who claimed to be a soothsayer was a monk in Hong Kong. I was there with The Mrs to consider a job proposal by a wealthy but distant relative whose connection to me was stretched as far as a sweet potato vine. The fortune-teller operated from a stall in the compound of a temple. We wanted his advice about the job and the merits of our proposed relocation to Shenzhen which was a small fishing village in the early ’80s. I mistook the monk’s frown at the time to be a foreboding warning but it was only recently that I learned that Shenzhen was a despicable place to the Hong Kongers back in the ’70s, as the main originating point from where economic refugees escaped the mainland to Hong Kong. The psychic rattled off in fast Cantonese about my fate and fortune but our grasp of the dialect was poor. I knew there would be only one winner in that transaction and quickly signalled to The Mrs to cut our losses and move on. Correction. The Mrs’ command of Cantonese is a lot superior to mine, but her memory is equally poor. All she can recall from the psychic’s ramblings was that I needed to grow a moustache. So, despite my mother’s protestations that a moustache made me look uglier and much older, I have kept it since although for many years it was just a pathetic thin band of facial hair that simply did not show my manliness. The Mrs translated to me that the psychic warned me to keep it at all times to cover up my philtrum. Apparently, a long groove between the nose and the upper lip will serve as a channel from which any wealth generated will quickly drain away. “You must have it covered up,” The Mrs chuckled when she said it. Can we trust our translators? I often watch in awe at interpreters who can translate without pausing whilst the speakers are speaking. Can you imagine translators at work during an an adversarial exchange between leaders of the world’s top nuclear-powered countries? Can we trust our translators? Maybe The Mrs just wanted me to look much older.

Unhappy with our psychic, The Mrs and I returned to pick up our kids whom we parked in Penang with my parents. Sensing I was still undecided about my future, Ma took me to Kuan Yin Temple in Pitt Street for a second opinion. The Mrs tagged along since the stakes were high. Pa did not interfere in any of the proceedings. Maybe he was still feeling guilty about withholding the letter of offer from Adelaide University. Dentistry was my first choice but I assumed I did not qualify because the letter never came and I went to study Commerce in UNSW instead. At the temple, we watched Ma ask the Goddess of Mercy about my prospects. I assumed that was who she was conferring with. I did not ask, but I guessed Ma would have made that same assumption. It was a lengthy process. From that, I gathered the Goddess couldn’t make up her mind. Was it a moment of indecision on Her part or was it just a normal process to get a definitive answer? It is no denigration on my part – I do not say that just because the Goddess takes a female form but it is true that Ma took ages to get a reply from Her. The process to get the answers to our questions involved shaking back and forth a tall wooden canister that was jam-packed with over a hundred long and thin bamboo sticks. The sticks were coded with numbers which informed the smiling nun at the counter which box to retrieve from a bank of boxes in the dark dank corner of the temple. The boxes were wooden and not much smaller than the size of shoe boxes. Those boxes contained all the answers anyone would seek in the universe. Depending on luck or was it one’s deftness in shaking the canister, it could take quite a long while for a stick to pop out of the canister. It felt like the Goddess was teasing us that day. Many times a stick was just about to fly out but only to slide back into the container on the next shake. Ma’s chanting got louder the more attempts she made. I do not think she prayed louder to catch Kuan Yin’s attention; more likely it was to drown out my groans that were growing louder with each failure. Ma was visibly perspiring at the foot of the altar in the smoke-filled room. Devotees in those days were allowed to bring in big bundles of burning joss sticks. Everyone was ignorant of the cancer-causing toxins that linger in smoke-filled temples. Although I had always been attracted to the scent of joss, too much of it was as suffocating as a heavy dose of someone’s cheap deodorant. My eyes stung and tears rolled down my cheeks. A punishment for my earlier groans – Kuan Yin did not miss the petulance of an impatient fella. There was a restrained yelp of joy when a stick unexpectedly flew out of the container. But, that wasn’t the end of the process. Next, Ma had to drop two kidney-shaped wooden pieces from above her head whilst on her knees to the Goddess. “If the pieces landed with both curved sides or both flat sides facing upwards or downwards, then the Goddess had played a joke on you,” a long-time friend said. He goes by the name The Cook, but I was not sure if he was simply cooking up a story here. Anyway, both pieces landed the same way, so, the stick that flew out of the container was rejected. Ma had to start all over again but with each new attempt, her energy waned at shaking the canister. The third stick that flew out was met with the nun’s approval when the kidney-shaped pieces landed on their opposite sides, one on the curved side and the other on its flat side. After such a rigorous test of energy and patience and belief, the answer had to be right! Ma told me I should go start my own small business. That was the answer the smiling nun gave us.

Of course, I was cynical about the psychic properties of two kidney-shaped wood. So, not long after we returned to Sydney, I applied for a job in Adelaide, South Australia. The General Manager, an old dapper Englishman, assured me I had got the job. “You’re set like jelly,” he said every time I enquired about when I could start my job there. That I’m set like jelly was not an answer to my question of when I could commence my employment. For an Englishman, his English was poor, I thought to myself. A strange phrase, now that I think of it. Why not say my job was as solid as a building’s foundation? Jelly can easily melt in room temperature that is mildly warm. Set like jelly? Temporarily, it would appear!

The next time I called upon a psychic was about a year into my new job as the assistant GM of that factory. Why do people want their fortunes told? Why the thirst to know the future when the present alone can be too much to handle? Is the unknown too mysterious and therefore the rush to discover it? A colleague assumed I was unhappy with work or maybe she felt I had marital problems? I did not ask her why she popped into my office one day and enthusiastically told me about a lady soothsayer who “was spot on” about everything she said about my colleague’s life. “You should go!” she said excitedly, as she waddled out of my office. Esther was an exotic-looking woman with a beautiful face that was decorated with baby-pink lipstick and almond-shaped eyes set deep by long curly eyelashes. A coffee-drinker, her friendly smiles would soon be damaged by her yellowing teeth. She was the latest recruit in the sales team, and unfortunately was the first to leave when sales stubbornly did not improve. A clement person, it was sad to see her get the sack. In life, there is often little mercy for the merciful. The clairvoyant she implored me to visit did not disappoint. I went there prepared. Knowing psychics also rely on factual evidence presented in front of their eyes, I was careful to hide any marks or hints of my background. I parked my company car a few streets away so there was no chance of her seeing I drove an executive car. I never wore a wedding ring, so there was no ring rash or pale ring mark around my brown finger. She would very well assume I was single, no kids. I was still young, bookish and student-looking. I knew to say very little so she could not even assess the level of my education. I dressed down that day, and wore my cheapest shirt from K-Mart and daggy pants from Big W. I had my old pair of shoes on, scuffed and out of fashion. Yet, she knew lots about me. She knew I was married, and she knew I adored my father. The fact that my eyes were drawn to her swimming pool told her I should start spending more time with my parents. I did not interrupt her to ask why that would even be a reasonable assumption to make. The startling thing was she knew I had three sons and there would be a fourth! She could even describe the key traits of my boys. She knew my eldest son had a scientific mind, perhaps in the medical field. Her cheat sheet would show Chinese kids tend to get into medicine. She was half right, he got into Computer Science. She said the second child would be successful in his chosen field, and would become someone with a high conviction of his beliefs and opinions. The third would be a total charmer, very successful and born with a golden spoon. She was right too, for he frequently enjoys the finest foods and wines. She even predicted a sibling would experience a marriage breakup, with children involved in the split. The one other big thing she got right was that I had, despite my disbelieving the two kidney-shaped wooden pieces at the Kuan Yin Temple, just started my own small business. The Mrs was running it in the beginning. She even described what problems I would encounter in my business and which of the two Italian employees I should trust in the years ahead. She said I would stay married (but she did not say to whom) and would cheat death twice. She got a few things wrong of course. I do not have a bad back and I surely do not have knee problems or bunions on my toes. The last thing that she has not got right (yet, perhaps?) is that I will have a fourth child. “A male, highly intelligent, a true gift, very special, and very well known,” were the words she used to describe him.

It turns out she got it half wrong. My psychic said I would have a fourth child. Upon a deep reflection of her words, I realised she meant Murray, my son’s dog who is, as she described so accurately, a male, highly intelligent, and truly truly a great gift to me. He is indeed very special to me and of course, he is very well known to all my family and friends. Even the office workers who work near my office in the city know him well, especially the young women workers who find him the most adorable. Murray is my best mate and he sticks to me all day, through thick and thin. I tell my staff he is my sidekick but privately, I tell him I am his sidekick.

Murray agrees of course. He is psychic. He never refuses a walk in the park, unless it was raining or about to rain. I suspect he knew the rain would come today as I stupidly watered the garden last night. Murray is surely psychic. I left him indoors yesterday, as I had to fix something in the neighbour’s garage. When The Mrs let him out of the house, he flew directly to the garage to find me. How would he know I was there, if he isn’t psychic? The other day, he changed his mind and walked back home. We were not even halfway to the park, yet he told me to go back home. Just as we reached our front garden, the rain pelted down. He is psychic! He sits on my lap during the day at my desk whilst I work. Even before I am about to take my reading glasses off, he’s jumping off my lap and doing his yoga stretches. He knows I am clocking off even before I do. He is psychic! After dinner if he is sleeping over, we would lie on the sofa, cheek to cheek, in front of the TV. If I dozed off, he would place his paw on my face ever so gently to let me know he is next to me. I would get off the sofa a few times a night, for a drink or let him out for a pee or take a pee myself or check my laptop in the office. Before I step off the sofa, he would of course be already wagging his tail, waiting for me. The funny thing is he never gets up from the sofa when I leave to go upstairs to sleep. Somehow, he knows. He is psychic, alright!

My sidekick, a psychic. Photo by Francis Koh.

WEF? WTF!

Reading about the World Economic Forum raised the hairs on the back of the old man’s neck. The dark truths about the workings of a few megalomaniacs prowling the corridors of global power shook him to the core. The world may have advanced in leaps and bounds, yet modernisation has not improved the moral character of man. The earthling remains an urghhling, still ugly, wicked, conniving and cruel. Their thirst for power over the rest of mankind is unrelenting. It seems they will do whatever is necessary to subjugate the average citizen of the world. Winning is everything for them, wealth and power the joystick to control everyone. The old man hoped what he had learned about the WEF was not true. After all, agnotology is rampant and is speeding up with the advent of the internet. Those who are hungry for power and control will propagate ignorance to un-educate the people through the dispensing of inaccurate or misleading scientific data and fake news. Agnotology was first used by the tobacco industry to create doubt that their products were killing people and then the technique was adopted by the oil industry to confuse and silence opponents of their products who lobbied against environmental degradation and climate change.

“Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world.”

Henry Kissinger, AZ Quotes

This quote has been attributed to Kissinger although he said it much more eloquently at the World Food Conference on November 5 1974 and came across as caring and well-meaning. With regards to food, this is what he said, “We must begin here with the challenge of food. No social system, ideology or principle of justice can tolerate a world in which the spiritual and physical potential of hundreds of millions is stunted from elemental hunger or inadequate nutrition. National pride or regional suspicions lose any moral and practical justification if they prevent us from overcoming this scourge.” Solution? The US soon dominated the global market for grain and agriculture commodities with just a handful of American conglomerates controlling the grain supply and price.

With regards to energy, Kissinger said, “The oil exporters have a special responsibility in this regard. Many of them have income far in excess of that needed to balance their international payments or to finance their economic development.” “​​Therefore, ways must be found to move more of the surplus oil revenue into long term lending or grants to poorer countries.” There have been many wars waged by America since then to control the oil supply and price.

With regards to money, Kissinger said, “If these (existing) sources (of financing) are not sufficient, new means must be found to supplement them. This must become one of the priority objectives of the countries and institutions that have the major influence in the international monetary system.” In 1963, the words “PAYABLE TO THE BEARER ON DEMAND” were removed from all newly issued US notes, perhaps an early indication that they would not have enough gold to meet any sudden increase in cash withdrawals. Just eight years later,  the US took their currency off the gold standard, enabling their Central Banks to control the world with their fiat currency by simply printing money that was backed by nothing apart from the might of their military. Making their money the world currency reserve, they have been able to exchange them for real goods and services with the rest of the world. Today, the US has a debt of $197 Trillion or $606,000 per citizen. If the nation were to pay off its debts with tax revenues, it would take 49 years to pay them off.

The whole idea of democracy is that we the people have the power to vote in a government of the people, by the people and who will manage our country for the people. Mark Moss, a Youtuber, revealed to the old man that it is the unelected non-government organisations NGOs that in fact control our elected governments.

Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI-BGHi4IYc

The big global objectives are effectively set by the WEF – its members being global leaders, top Fortune 500 owners and executives who meet once a year at Davos to decide what is best for the world. The head of the WEF, Klaus Schwab was proud to announce in a forum that their ‘Young Global Leaders” (YGL) who were selected and mentored for five years by senior ranking officials of the WEF have “penetrated” all levels of governments across the globe. He cited that over half of the cabinet ministers of Canada, Argentina and France comprise of YGLs. Former YGLs include current leaders such as Joe Biden (POTUS), Justin Trudeau (PM of Canada), Boris Johnson (PM of UK), Emmanuel Macron (President of France), Scott Morrison (PM of Australia) and Jacinta Arden (PM of New Zealand). The WEF was formed by Klaus Schwab in 1971, which also happened to be the year when Nixon removed the US dollar from the gold standard. Incidentally, Klaus’ grandmother, Marianne Schwab, was a Rothschild. It is no secret that the Rothschild family from Frankfurt rose to banking prominence in the 1760s and today still has their tentacles firmly wrapped in the global banking cartel. Klaus Schwab who holds a Master of Public Administration at Harvard was taught by none other than Henry Kissinger. Schwab would later say that Kissinger was one of the top figures who most influenced his thinking over the course of his entire life. It seems logical therefore that someone like Klaus Schwab from the Rothschild lineage and a disciple of Henry Kissinger would be most qualified to lead the WEF. Schwab has written a number of books, a favourite topic of his being the “Great Reset”, with the catch phrase “Build, Back, Better” peppered in many of them. What does he want to build back? To do that, he will have to destroy the existing first? Leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Pamela Harris, and even Bill Gates and Prince Charles have repeated this catch phrase. At the top of the organisation chart sits the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). The WEF adopts the plans set in conjunction with the world’s top policy maker i.e. the BIS who acts as the world’s bank for central banks, and then coordinates and instructs the policy distributors such as the United Nations, the IMF, World Bank, the WHO, and other NGOs such as IPCC (Climate Change) to execute the agreed plans. They then push their agenda to the policy enforcers i.e. national governments, aided by the policy propagandists, such as mainstream media, politicians and fact checkers, etc. At the bottom of the organisation chart is of course us, the policy subjects. What needs to be reset? It seems to Mark Moss that what they want to reset is the world’s monetary system which is broken after decades of piling a mountain of debt which can no longer be paid off and the race is now on for most national governments in the world to introduce new money, a CBDC, central bank digital currency, i.e. digital money for a new taxation and payment system to control how we spend and save our money.

The world has seen great advancements in science and technology in the last hundreds of years. With the agricultural revolution, we have moved from a nomadic lifestyle to one where we can stay put in one location without the need to hunt and gather food to survive. The next big revolution was the industrial revolution, where the introduction of machines powered the world’s economy using steam engines and electric power. This was followed by another revolution during which rapid scientific discoveries and mass production sped up industry using computers. The latest revolution is of course the internet phase where every progress is evolving at an exponential pace. Web 3.0 using blockchain technology together with quantum computing and 5G /6G internet speed will soon dominate every aspect of life. Yet, when it comes to the nature of homo sapiens, nothing has changed. Not only are countries still at war with one another, we still see rebellions such as the civil war in the Ukraine which has raged on since 2014.

The old man is reminded of a classic Chinese novel, The Water Margin; the book was first published over 650 years ago (in 1368) at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. The Water Margin is based on the virtuousness and ethical values of Song Jiang and his men in 12th century China during the Song Dynasty. The marsh brotherhood was a gang of outlaws who prized the values of Confucianism very highly, which was why it led them to rebel against the authorities – the unjust, the dishonest and the wicked. At its core, Song Jiang and his sworn brothers promoted the virtues of benevolence, loyalty, trust, morality and filial piety. The socio-political fabric of the society was broken due to the lack of reciprocal trust and obligations by the court officials and the judiciary towards the people. The loss of trust in the authorities reminds the old man of what is happening today where a so-called democratic government such as the one in Canada can seize their citizens’ bank accounts without due process, simply because they (the truckers) protested against what they saw were draconian laws to force the people to be vaccinated if they wanted to keep their jobs. This loss of trust was further exacerbated by many Western countries sanctioning Russia, a country with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, and freezing the country’s bank accounts and kicking them out of the world’s payments system (SWIFT). By Western countries, I mean some 30 countries out of the total of 195 in the UN have joined the US in the crippling sanctions – the vast majority (over 80%) have not. Seizing their sovereign funds, i.e. robbing the people’s money and stopping them from doing business with the rest of the world or levying high tariffs on their exports with the aim of crippling their economy was their way of punishing Putin, the Russian president. Is forcing a regime change the main objective? If central banks can do that to a country with nuclear weapons, surely they can do that to all of us. They did so despite the majority of countries in the U.N. refusing to abide by the US requirement. China, India, most of Asia, the Middle East and Africa refused to apply the crippling sanctions which mostly cause hardship to ordinary folk in the country being punished but in this case, it will also likely starve over a hundred million people in months to come. After demonstrating to the world that our money is not really our money in any bank, is there any country that is not secretly worried about their hard-earned reserves? Similarly, the US seized half of the sovereign funds of the impoverished people of Afghanistan recently, a real life story of the rich and powerful robbing the indigent who are on the brink of famine and starvation. It is heart-breaking to witness this catastrophe being played out on the streets of Kabul and beyond. Have the Afghans not suffered enough in their long history of wars, recent ones being the 19th century wars against the British, followed by a few civil wars and then the ten-year war against Soviet Russia in the 1980s and the recently finished war against the US which lasted twenty years. When a State at its apogee of greatness and power cannot show compassion and solicitude for another race of people, then surely, that State is already in decline.

If ever the world needs another Song Jiang, it is now. Chinese history is filled with emperors who ruled with “The Mandate of Heaven”, charged by Heaven to rule and take care of “All under Heaven” or tianxia. So, when the emperor loses the Mandate of Heaven, the virtuous hero has no qualms but to exercise his duty to correct the wrongs done to the people by greedy officials, corrupt judges and evil individuals. The hero for the poor and the helpless must rise up. Unfortunately, the heroes of Shuihuzhuan in applying their Confucian morals and virtue ended up on the wrong side of the law and became outlaws instead. Can the Water Margin teach and inspire us to avoid the mistakes of the past? Is it too late to suggest that Klaus Schwab and his Young Global Leaders all learn from this 12th century novel? To avoid chaos and suffer the ultimate downfall from power, those in lofty positions must remember to alway rule with virtue and kindness not corruption and greed, with justice and honesty not immorality and inequality, with benevolence and intelligence, not ineptitude and brutality, with love and tolerance, not violent force and threats.

In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.

Confucius

What inspired the old man in Shuihuzhuan is the theme that all men are brothers. Song Jiang’s Confucian values of loyalty, honour and filial piety and his reverence for his brotherhood at Liangshan Marsh tugged at the old man’s heart strings. The old man remembers with fondness the camaraderie of his brotherhood of ‘Lasallian Saints’ formed during his school days, and till to this day, all school mates remain brothers. Who will be the Song Jiang in their brotherhood? Who will lead these brothers to a happier and fairer place? Will Song Jiang reveal himself in a later chapter?

Schism About Catechism

The old man had become an insomniac ever since he turned 60. That was over three years ago. The loss of sleep had seen him aged. Accelerated it, actually. His Mrs used to tell party jokes about him, tales of how boring he was as a young chap. “You know the type, he would start snoring the moment his heavy head touched his pillow,” she told a group of women who surrounded her with glasses of wine and champagne. Amidst the chorus of laughter, hers being the loudest, she added, “the silly man didn’t even notice I was ready for his advances, he missed all the clues I had laid out for him.” So, a few weekends ago, when she said to a friend that she was a lucky woman because “the old man was never restless in bed the minute he hit his pillow,” he knew she had no idea of his nocturia. He had tried everything – refraining from drinking water three, four hours before bedtime, emptying his bladder being the last thing he did before turning off his bedside light, and adhering to the strict rule of no more coffee or tea after dinner. He had not told anyone of his condition for fear that it might be construed as an enlargement of his prostate. He did not welcome the idea of undergoing a digital test by his doctor. By digital, he did not mean anything to do with a computer but rather an examination inside his arse with the use of a finger.

The old man looked wan despite the many long walks with his dog during the recent hot summer afternoons. Hunched and bleary-eyed, the pale complexion of his sickly face gave the impression of a possible illness and obvious lethargy. Below his knees though, the colour of his skin told the casual observer of a man who spent much of his time out in the sun in his shorts. The prolonged spell of excessive night urination had certainly affected his health and mood. He had turned short-tempered and uncaring about his physical appearance. Grumpy at all times, he still smiled occasionally but those were smiles that did not express welcome. With gritted teeth and an overbearing dark cloud as a halo, his forced tenderness fooled no one, not even the stranger whose cocker spaniel dragged her away as they exchanged hellos in the park. His unkempt hair smelled unwashed and often triggered his Mrs to nag him about hygiene as she avoided him more and more. He blamed the garlic in his food for his bad breath and his dog became the reason for his body odour. He had stopped wearing dark-coloured shirts since noticing the collection of scurf tended to be more visible on them. It was always someone else or something else to blame. To be fair, perhaps it was the ghost’s fault for his slide to ignominy. Often awoken in the middle of the night, he would lay wide-eyed after his frequent trips to the loo. He averaged four times a night, at a minimum three times and sometimes six times, that was how bad his nocturia had become. At first, he dismissed the moving shadows he saw as an aberration in his mind, a wild imagination that had gone unchecked in his fecund mind and later he concluded they were simply tricks his bad eyes played on him. He didn’t care and was not bothered by the darting movements of a shadow or the wavering shape of a dark body of energy. He just told himself he wasn’t wearing his glasses. And when he heard the weird whispers just a breath away from his face or the loud unmistakable knock on the table just outside his bedroom, he convinced himself he was in a dream even as he laid wide awake on his bed and sleep would not come. Sometimes, after a pee in the wee hours, he would go downstairs to watch his football team play in the English Premier League. Ever hopeful of a miraculous win, he would be mostly disappointed by the tardiness and lack of zest of the players. It wasn’t just once or twice that the stairs creaked of a heavy footstep but he did not care and told himself that was how wood expand or contract at night. It was a pot deciding to move from its fixed position on the drying dish rack before clattering in the silence of the night that persuaded him it was time to abandon the game on the TV and hurry upstairs to hide in the safety of his doona. That was a poltergeist alright, ‘geist’ being a German word for ‘ghost’.

A few nights ago, the old man again wandered downstairs after another visit to the loo in a dead-quiet hour of the night. He preferred to be downstairs as the unceasing sounds of the mini waterfall and aquarium gave the house more ‘life’. The humming of the fridge strangely comforted him and the more he focused on it the louder it became. Whilst staring at the TV but not watching what was on, the house had a blackout and everything went off. The night turned eerily dark and silent without the usual splattering of the water jets in the aquarium. The TV went off at the same time as did the lamp behind his chaise and the fridge in the kitchen on the right hand side of his open-plan house. But then came the “thud, thud, thud” sound from within one of the kitchen cupboards adjacent to the fridge. It sounded dull and muffled for a few seconds until the darkness in the room turned menacingly darker and the thundering thuds told him to let it out of the cupboard. The old man didn’t wait for the power to come back on. Neither did he respond to the sounds the cupboard made. It’s just a friendly ghost, he assured himself as he made his way up the stairs hurriedly.

A few nights ago, a friend shared a story of a Malaysian man, Peter Achuta, who claimed that he accidentally discovered a cure for nocturia. A simple, non-medical intervention that hardly cost a few cents a night. His discovery came about after his friends had pointed out that his frequent visits to the toilet during their weekly beer sessions had not gone unnoticed. He remembered from his student days that taking an oily bullseye egg prior to his drinking sessions at the pub had enabled him to outlast his drinking companions. So, he took two hard-boiled eggs before his Friday-night sessions and soon discovered that not only did the visits to the toilet stopped in the pub, his night-time urination also stopped every Friday night. So, he began to take the eggs every night and since then, his nocturia had become a distant memory. The old man, although cynical and disbelieving, started taking two hard-boiled eggs for dinner four nights ago. The verdict: It works! He woke up only once during each night to have a pee. Thank you, Tek Fuh, for sharing this gem of a story with the old man. Hopefully, this is the last we see of the cantankerous old fool, a nice transformation that we await with bated breaths. But, let’s not kid ourselves, the old man will not suddenly become the quintessential kind and pleasant man. An urghhling, like a leopard, never changes its spots. But, we cling to the hope that they will fade.

On the following morning, the old man grinned at the mirror, so pleased was he to have enjoyed a deep sleep that had evaded him for years. He knew the rapid eye movements during his sleep would deliver good dreams to him once more. His mood will improve and he will feel better if his nocturia was cured. Almost out of character, he allowed himself a lengthy conversation with an old schoolmate, a born-again Christian.

The Old Man: A question. If we believe in ghosts, does that mean we must believe in the Holy Ghost?

Stan: Of course, we believe in ghosts, as they have immense power to do evil. Technically, from the Christian perspective, the term ‘Holy Ghost’ is not encouraged in the Scriptures anymore. As you can very well discern, it is contradictory to call a ghost holy. How can something evil be holy at the same time? Instead, we refer to it as the Holy Spirit as it takes good care of us.

The Old Man: Why would all ghosts be evil? That I do not believe!

Stan: Well, technically, the term ‘ghost’ is just a spiritual realm and not evil by nature but because humans define ghosts to be evil (the devil, Satan, Lucifer, etc), it is better to use the word ‘spirit’ instead as that can be evil or holy.

Stan: Spiritual entities can be classified as evil or good, weak or strong. But there is only one Holy Spirit.

The Old Man: At catechism classes in Standard 1, were we not taught Jesus was the Holy Ghost?

Stan: You misremembered or maybe misinterpreted the teacher.

Stan: How can you claim that you were taught that the Holy Spirit is Jesus when you can’t even remember the name of your class teacher? Moreover, catechism class was strictly for Catholic students! So, were you even in our catechism class?

The Old Man:  I hope you aren’t trying to rewrite my history. I don’t know the rules now or then, but I know I attended two, maybe three lessons. I didn’t want to obey any leader who wasn’t Chinese and Jesus wasn’t Chinese to me. Jesus and Mary looked foreign to me, so I asked the teacher if I could quit the lessons and was surprised she let me!

Stan: How else can you make a 7-year-old kid understand who the Holy Spirit is by simplifying that the Holy Spirit is Jesus? Even theologians have difficulty explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Old Man: Yeah, the Holy Trinity troubled me then too. I did not accept the possibility of one being being three beings, until I watched Primal Fear and Psycho.

The Old Man: Another question. If we believe in ghosts, is it a ‘feeling’ or ‘energy’ we detect? Or do we actually see a physical being?

Stan: Very interesting question. Why are you passionate about “ghost stories”? Honestly, I don’t know as I have not experienced it personally. I have never met a ghost but I do believe very strongly in their existence. I feel the strong ‘presence’ of the Holy Spirit within and even more strange, I am not the slightest bit afraid of encountering any evil spirit at all. Not that I welcome them in any way but I feel very protected somehow.

The Old man: Can you describe this strong ‘presence’?

Stan: Before I was so scared of attending funerals and each time I attended a wake, my hair stood on ends and I would end up covering my face on one side with my hand to avoid looking at the coffin! Suey (cursed) you know, that was what mum taught me. But now, I not only attend wakes but stare straight into the face of the dead person lying in the coffin with no fear whilst offering a prayer. The presence tells me “fear not as I am with you”. When something great is inside your body and soul, you not only feel it but you KNOW it is the Holy Spirit.

The Old Man: I detect a schism of sorts here. Catechism classes taught me about the Holy Ghost, but it appears the modern vernacular is the Holy Spirit? When did the Holy Ghost become the Holy Spirit?

Stan: Yes. Because of the negative perception of the word ‘ghost’, they changed the word to ‘spirit’.

The Old Man: Words are the greatest source of misunderstandings.

Stan: When the Old Testament was written more than 2,000 years ago, the term ” Holy Ghost” represented a good and holy spirit but today, the world interprets ‘ghosts’ as evil and unholy. When Jesus arrived and the New Testament was written, only the HOLY SPIRIT is ever mentioned.

The Old Man: What negative perception of ‘ghost’? The first ghost I encountered was a very kind one. The world thinks ghosts are all evil? Wow. But, spirits are dominant in the occult, no? Doesn’t the New Testament mention demonic possession by ‘unclean spirits’? That means evil spirits, right?

Stan: Aisehman, you are still at it! The human definition of the ‘ghost’ you encountered must have been a good SPIRIT..!!

The Old Man: Can there be any other definition apart from being the human kind?

Stan: (Silence).

Day Two

Stan: The Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit are synonymous. Different words for different folks. The original Bible text was written in Greek and then translated into English. Holy Ghost was the term used in the King James Version. It really depends on which version of the Bible is used. The Latin version of the Trinitarian formula “In Nomine Patris Et Filli Et Spiritus Sancti ” consistently refers to the Holy Spirit. Nowadays, the Holy Spirit is used widely.

The Old man: That’s what I wanted to hear! Not that spiel that all ghosts are evil! My paternal grandma’s ghost was kind. She even pulled the cotton blanket to cover my chest properly when I was asleep. True story! I could feel the blanket sliding up my body from my waist during an afternoon nap. I was about seven years old. Even as I trembled in my pretend sleep, I knew it was her.

The Old Man: I was attending a funeral yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church. The priest mentioned the Holy Trinity and then talked about the Virgin Mary and how strong she was to accept God’s task for her. How would anyone feel if asked to be the mother of God? Oh! The mother of God?! The funeral was partly conducted in Italian and although the language and tone of the priest’s voice was lyrical, my mind could not help but drift towards Mary who was 12 or 13 at the time and very poor. Already engaged to a carpenter named Joseph, it would have raised the ire of all women in society today that a minor would have been used this way, by God, no less. She was valiant and incredibly strong to respond to Gabriel when she replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). But, what a sacrifice. She had not even learned about the joy of sex or discovered the ecstasy of a full orgasm. In those days, it was a sin to have sex outside marriage. She should have been disgraced as an unwed mother, and her future husband should have annulled their engagement. Yet, there was not a single report of her being stoned for her sin as the law of the day permitted. Everyone believed her story, “No, I did not have sexual relations with any man!” There was not a single person who felt uneasy by her claims. A once-in-human-history event, a miracle of miracles, yet everyone was sure her story was true. No word of a lie, she was a virgin when she gave birth to the boy. Not a shred of evidence, yet not a single snide remark about the possibility of her lying to avoid being stoned to death.

The old man met Caterina for the first time for lunch on 13 November last year. He had known of her for decades. He had heard of the stories about her generosity and kindness and her limitless love for everyone. He knew she could cook up a meal for an army without notice. Her recipes of pastas were legendary. It felt to him like their meeting was just a few weeks ago, so fresh her smiles have resided in his mind. Caterina left a lasting impression on him. She remained the only woman in this world to have clung on to his hands and refused to let him go, as he bade her farewell after the party. No one had ever made him feel so welcomed, so liked, so valued. So precious. Caterina did and did so with verve and love. Her smiles never left her face, they were perpetual and genuine and filled with honesty and love. She taught him the value of a smile when it is from the heart. At 92, she showed him that love and kindness is ageless. That a smile can melt the hardest stone. That goodness outlasts darkness. Yesterday, the old man bade farewell to Caterina but this time, it was he who didn’t want to let her go. It was a farewell that was still filled with her smiles and love.

Caterina’s legendary Nonna’s doughnut puffs. Vale, Caterina.

The Chase From My Chaise

“Was she too fast for you?” my Hongkonger friend asked the other day. She? She was a one of the hottest girls in school. I shall call her Lois, after Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend. Why Superman? The Hongkonger reminds me of Superman for his exploits during those young days were legendary. I could only marvel at him, the way he zoomed from one girl’s house to another was as speedy and heroic as a Marvel hero. Why Superman’s girlfriend? Because as in the movie, Superman gets the prettiest girl but I hasten to add that Lois in my story did not fall for him. Lois was a superb athlete in our school. She was the undisputed champion in the 100m sprints, the 200m, the 400m as well as the decathlon. In those days, girls could only join our school in Form 6. At 18,  the introduction of the opposite sex to our boys-only school was a ploy, I think, for the authorities to wreak havoc on our biological system when we were most susceptible to hormonal eruptions. I was dorky and shy. When my pimples erupted, I was not just dorky and shy but also taciturn and withdrawn. Encumbered with the need to wear glasses from an early age, I was neither sporty nor athletic. Sure, I was tanned and healthy-looking but only from sun-baked afternoons playing barefoot football against guys who were appropriately protected with proper football boots. Was Lois too fast for me? My legs were splayed widely on my chaise lounge when the question was asked. So, I started to chase my memory and cast my mind back to events leading up to how I met Lois. I never could run fast, often languishing in the middle of the pack until the last fifty of the 400 metre race when I would join the last few stragglers to cross the imaginary line. Possessing neither speed nor stamina, it was no surprise that they didn’t pick me to represent the school’s blue team in anything. I was a foreigner to Paul House even though blue was my favourite colour – I had strength of character but they wanted strength. Lois was a darling of the red team. Somehow I ditched the Paul supporters and started to cheer for the red team which was named Barnitus House. But, later I discovered she was actually running for the blue team, so I switched back to be an ardent supporter of Paul House. On most days in the late afternoons, after I got myself browned like a Malay boy, I would stay back to watch the real sportspeople train. Lois was always there, running, jumping, leaping, flying. Apart from athletics, Lois was a big name in the softball circle. She could hit the softball as hard as how Wonder Woman would deflect bullets with her metal bracelets. So, why didn’t I ask to race against her? I knew I was no match for the boys, but why wasn’t I curious to find out if I could pit my strength and speed against her? Beat her? So, when my Hongkonger friend asked his question, I could only wonder and remain silent.

Was she too fast for me? Maybe in more ways than one. I never saw her up close until at least half the year was gone. Lois was the Wonder Woman in our school. Her eyes were as shining and beautiful as Wonder Woman’s, her young and full figure as tantalising, her natural curls bouncy and shapely and always just at shoulder length, and her sweet smile as disarming and as alluring. A wonderful girl, it was no wonder all the boys vied for her attention. A scrawny boy like me knew to keep a distance lest he be ridiculed by those leading the pack. No, I did not dare chase her, this Wonder Woman. That is my conclusion as I let my mind wander from my chaise.

I met Lois through the Hongkonger. Back then, his nickname was Long Chin, not because Chin was his surname but because the skinny teenager with a narrow face was experiencing an outburst of growth in his jawbone. It was Danny’s mum who first called him that. Adults in those days used to call kids by names of animals, such as Ah Kau (dog) or Ah Tu (pig) or Ah Gu (cow), but it was never the practice to call someone by their distinct body part. It would be most misappropriate to call anyone Long Dong, right? Since those young days, the Hongkonger has put on weight and grown a thick beard. It is no exaggeration to describe his as a Antonio Banderas look-alike. Sexy and suave, I can still see him in his open shirt with the 70’s long sharp pointed collars and bell-bottoms, gliding about on the dance hall assuming the role of John Travolta in Grease in his mind. Lois was there too. Fun-loving and cheeky, she was a live-wire at the party. She laughed a lot, her deep-set eyes happy and bright and her high cheeks adorned a beautiful face. The problem attractive girls have is that they attract everybody including those they didn’t want to attract. Lois was busily swatting some away like flies. Long Chin was in his element that night. Although we went to the party together in his Honda N360, I felt totally out of place and left early. Shaking my body, flailing my arms wildly and gyrating my legs to loud music didn’t make any sense to me. My eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark room and my ears hated the noise. So, I walked home.

My friends say I think too much. That it is a waste of energy to let my mind wonder all the time. Sadhguru said that thought isn’t intelligence. I call him my sad teacher, because the more I learn from him, the sadder I become. In uni, I was elevated by Descarte, when I read about his first principle in Philosophy. “I think, therefore I am.” Our consciousness makes us who we are. But, our senses can often deceive us. As Sadhguru said, thought is not intelligence. So, I feel stupid after that. We often confuse intellect with intelligence. Intellect allows us to think by processing ideas from a bank of data or memory. Our brain is simply churning out biochemical algorithms – our intellect depends on how much of our brain we use; computers can do that better than us. Intelligence and memory reside in all our cells. Intuition is not an outcome of thought. It just happens a lot faster because we have learned it. An example is jumping. We know how to do it without thinking about it anymore. Sadhguru has a word for pure intelligence, i.e. mind without memory – Chitta. Chitta is always on, making life happen. Without intelligence, we cannot live. Try and breathe using our intellect, we can’t! Chitta connects us with our consciousness. Consciousness is the essence of life. A.I. cannot have that. I get it now, the more I think, the more I project my stupid ideas to my friends. Who am I? Whatever I have gathered in terms of feelings, beliefs, biases, experience and knowledge, I can say they are mine, but it’s not me. So, who am I? I may dress shabbily and present myself unkempt with entangled long hair, or smell unwashed having had Murray (my son’s pup) on my lap all day (as extremely careful as he is, sometimes he leaves pee near his groin). I may like BOSS clothing to remind myself I am boss but all that is just my shell. Maybe it is just as well I do not have a special identity. I may not like who I am. Sadhguru said our body is like the peel of a fruit. Once we consume the fruit, the peel is discarded. The peel is meaningless without the fruit – it is only there to protect it. So, the physical creature comforts that we enjoy will not be good enough if we do not nourish the fruit inside us. Chasing this idea of who I am from my chaise has got me nowhere.

You are not your body and lifestyle, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b-40a

I happened to chance upon a seminal study that looks at the traits of the top investors of our time by looking at their personality type and mapping that to their returns and keys to success. It looks at the time preference (short vs long term), analytical approach (intuitive vs quantitative), focus (broad vs narrow) and risk appetite (risk averse vs risk-taking) of each legendary investor. Warren Buffet can be pigeon-holed as a long term investor, highly analytical using Quants, focused in just a few big plays and is famous for being risk averse. I thought it would reveal why I have been such a lousy investor in my time in the sharemarket. I promised The Mrs she could divorce me if I were to ever return to investing in shares again. I took part in the free personality test and discovered my personality type is Architect, INTJ-A which describes me as Introvert, iNtuitive, Thinker, Judger. Introverts often like to work alone or in small groups, and like to focus on one task at a time. Intuitives focus on the big picture, value innovation and seek creative solutions to problems. Thinkers tend to make decisions logically and value honesty and fairness. Judgers are organised and stick to plans and are comfortable following most rules. That’s me! Those in the study that are in the same category include Bill Miller, Chamath Palihapitiya, Steven Cohen, and Michael Burry. Cathie Wood and George Soros are ENTJ’s, whereas Warren Buffet is ISTJ. It made me happy, I had three of his four traits. I do not have Buffet’s S. Sensors are realistic people who focus on facts and apply common sense and past experience to find practical solutions to problems. So, the only difference is I am intuitive whereas Buffet is realistic. Oh and yes, he is mega successful as an investor and I am not. Those who are most successful rank analytics as the most important driver, focus being the second most important followed by longer timeframes in their preference and then their appetite for risk – more risk more return. The Mrs told me not to bother analysing further. My dismal track record of heavy losses already shows what type of investor I am. A very poor one. So, I returned to my chaise and stopped chasing my dreams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN00QaEQCaU

The current book on my bedside table is John Grisham’s The King of Torts. I found it stashed away on the bottom of a cupboard in the formal dining room – a room that was never used as intended by the architect. We converted it into a study by dividing it from the formal lounge with a plywood wall. The formal lounge was also a room that never fulfilled its purpose as intended by its designer. We aren’t Brits and so there is very little that is formal about the way we live. The formal lounge is now a guest bedroom. How foolish to have a guest room when we hardly have guests coming to stay. That room is the least used room and serves as a prime asset with a very poor yield. The book looks old yet it is hard to guess its age. There is a distinct lack of dog ears but its yellowed pages made me wonder if I did read it once upon a time. Published in 2003, it looked familiar but my mind had no recollection of the story even though I have finished Chapter 11. On Sunday, when I came across the last sentences on page 89, I felt a bolt of lightning had struck my head. My head was spinning violently and I felt breathless with excitement. John Grisham was writing about a wonder drug that could cure addiction to opium and cocaine. He called it Tarvan. Take it and your craving for crack is gone, forever. Freed from our addiction to drugs – just like that! Think of the lives saved, the crimes that would not be committed, the misery families would be lifted from. It actually felt eerie after I had recovered my composure from the initial shock. Earlier that same morning, I had heard about Mike Tyson’s “medicine” in his interview by Mark Moss. Could John Grisham’s “Tarvan” be Tyson’s “Toad”? Let’s hope not, because Tarvan in the novel makes 8% of its users kill. Plain and simple.

A book I forgot I had read many many years ago

My job is to change the way you think about money because almost everything you have learned is wrong.

Mark Moss

Mike Tyson was a write-off after his illustrious boxing career ended. You know, he was into the ‘usual’ things that people usually do in America. Drugs, cocaine, ice, alcohol, sex with strangers, he was killing himself. He would simply leave the car he wrecked on the roadside and buy another one. But, one day, he did something that changed his life in an instant. He called it a “sucker punch intervention”. A friend gave him “sandy dust” which he smoked from a crack pipe. He calls it his “medicine”, his “God molecule”. He couldn’t describe it but it was spiritual enough for him to invoke God. He talked about people being “high” on drugs but this thing “elevated” him. Suddenly, it wasn’t about him anymore. It was all about the medicine. All he has achieved since wasn’t his doing, Tyson said. It was the medicine. Mark Moss said sure, it was still him, right? You took it and it lifted you. You lost a hundred pounds in four months. You’re back in great shape, you’re focused, you’re back to boxing, you’re now into entrepreneurship, investing in new endeavours, giving motivational talk shows. “That’s all you, right?” Moss asked. Tyson simply laughed and said his interviewer can’t understand what he’s saying. No, for Mike Tyson, it can’t be him. He is not that person. What he is today is from this God molecule. His toad. They call it DMT, short for 5-MeO-DMT. A wonder drug that a recent European study showed that after one single use, it gave the patients a “sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life, and easing of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Mike Tyson said in interview, “I look at life differently, I look at people differently. It’s almost like dying and being reborn… It’s inconceivable. I tried to explain it to some people, to my wife, I don’t have the words to explain it. It’s almost like you’re dying, you’re submissive, you’re humble, you’re vulnerable — but you’re invincible still in all.” It is sometimes called “The Toad” because it is derived from dried venom secreted by the Bufo alvarius toad, a toad found near the Mexican border with the US. A puff of it will elevate you to heaven. Many say they “see God” and their lives change instantly. They become clearheaded, focused and their minds change back to their previous healthy state. I wonder what my sad teacher would say to that. Would Sadhguru agree that this dust from the desert elevates us to reach Chitta? Enough chatter. Chasing truth from my chaise today has only clouded my mind.

Three Hundred & One Red

After reading about the agoge system of education, the old man decided to watch the movie, 300, last night. The agoge system was practised in ancient times in Greece, by ancient the old man meant a few hundred years before Christ. At age seven, Spartan boys were sent away from the bosom of their mothers to learn about the art of war and to prepare their bodies for the harshness of war. They would only return home as fighting men if they survived living in the wild on their own after their training, usually by 30 years of age. In the movie, a young Leonidas, the future king of Sparta, triumphed over a giant black wolf, its black darker than the blackest night and its eyes redder than the colour of blood. A spartan had to be tough, a Spartan had to be strong. They were trained to withstand pain and the harshest conditions. Freedom wasn’t free at all, it came at great costs. For a Spartan, there was no surrender. There was no retreat. Three virtues were often repeated. Honour. Duty. Glory. Every Spartan soldier was expected to stand and fight. And die. Their only request in return was not a monument. Not a statue in their honour. Not a street named after them. No, they only wished that we remember them. That’s the least we can do, for they died for the promise of freedom. Molon labe pronounced as moˈlon laˈve – come and take them. This was Leonidas’ reply to the Persian King, the wannabe god, Xerxes, who demanded that the Spartans lay down their weapons and kneel to him. Molon labe, give them nothing but take from them, everything. To victory!

Molon labe

King Leonidas on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)

Men are not born equal. Not all lands are equal. Spartan believed they were far superior, in bravery, strength, resilience and the willingness to die for their people. That three hundred of them could be enough to repel and defeat the King of Kings, Xerxes the Persian emperor of “the world”, who invaded Greece with a massive army in the hundreds of thousands supported by a navy. Why send only three hundred men to defend his country against such a powerful foe? Even back in those days, no man was above the law, not even King Leonidas. So, when he went to consult the Delphic Oracle about going to war against Xerxes during the Carneia, their Christmas season, the Pythia forbade Leonidas to go to war. So, Leonidas could only “go for a walk” with three hundred of his bodyguards to protect him. The Pythia, a priestess, was revered as the mouthpiece of their god of prophecy. In the movie 300, the inner sanctum of Apollo’s temple had been bribed by a faction that was anti-war and ordered the Pythia to say that their glorious city would be decimated by the Persians if they went to war.

Not all lands are equal in value and importance. The old man suddenly thought of Ukraine today. He paused for those who have lost loved ones and for those who have lost everything. War is never good. War is never the answer. Yet, has there ever been peace on earth in the history of mankind? Urghhlings, to the old man, will never learn for it is in their genetic code to be the superior animal, a terrible consequence of evolution. Ukraine, unfortunately, sits at the border of Russia and that makes the land strategically important. To Russia, Ukraine is their redline that it does not become part of the EU or more precisely, that they are not part of NATO, a military alliance that requires the whole alliance to defend a member country that is at war. To the US, Ukraine is their chess piece to keep Russia in check and prevent their Cold War foe from advancing towards the west. Somehow, the US does not seem to accept that the Cold War ended once the Soviet Union self-destructed and blew itself into many separate states without a gunshot being fired. That was 30 years ago. Talk about slow learners! Despite the initial reservations by many EU countries, the US got their way and inserted in paragraph 23 of the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration, that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. Four months later, many Georgian villages were bombed to smithereens by Russia, for they too share a common border with Russia. The war lasted twelve days. It was made very very clear to the world then that Russia will not allow NATO to be at their doorsteps.

Men are not born equal. Some are downright foolish. The old man said, “Why would the Ukrainian President insist on joining NATO?” Given the lessons from Georgia, why would any Ukrainian leader aspire to become a NATO member? Despite repeated warnings from Russia that they will not accept US and European encampments and military bases at the border? The West may trumpet the fact that Ukraine is a true democracy and therefore every democracy should be strongly defended but why have we forgotten that their previously elected President was ousted in a coup and the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government in 2014 following the Maidan Revolution was welcomed by the West simply because he was pro-Russia? There is a certain Marvelisation by western media to make Zelensky into a superhero. He is definitely a hero in social media and already has a street named after him in America. His portrayal of a leader defending his country against all odds is a throw-back to the Spartan folklore about the three hundred heroes who defended their land against the Persian invaders. Appropriately, Zelensky appears in his regular video posts unshaven, rugged like Rambo, and in military-green defiance against a superpower. He is on the streets, digging in, rallying his troops, asking to join NATO, asking NATO to join in the fight, fighting. He is not in some gilded palace enjoying the finest wines and grapes. He is wearing a green t-shirt, no silk or satin robes. A self-sacrificial hero in the mould of a Spartan, Leonidas, no less. A former comedian, he reminds the old man he may still be one. Fancy asking NATO for fighter jets and no-fly zones – still showing a naivety that the US and the rest of Europe will join him in his fight. A no-fly zone, although necessary to prevent Russian MIGs from entering Ukraine’s airspace, will entail the shooting down of Russian planes. That is akin to asking for WW3 but a war that the world has never seen before, a nuclear one. Some in the West are already saying Zelensky will go down in history as a legendary hero, a profoundly inspirational leader who did not blink. The old man said, “Alexander the Great is buried on the same grounds as his mule handler.” What good is greatness once we are dead?

But, we know freedom isn’t free at all. Too many lives have been lost, many more will be sacrificed. Zelensky will be martyred in a country in total ruin. Will they be free? His story to the old man echoes that of Leonidas’. Tricked by his ‘Delphi Oracle’, Zelensky’s Pythia isn’t a priestess, but the one paragraph in a summit declaration some years back in which his country was promised membership to NATO. To the old man, Zelensky isn’t a hero. He is a fool to sacrifice his people, and his country for some fanciful notion that freedom is a price worth paying for in blood and misery. Ukraine was already a free and independent country; the only price for that freedom was not to join the NATO. “A good enough deal,” the old man said.

Only the dead is truly free. Free from the ugliness of this world.

Wu Yonggang

A few nights earlier, the old man watched Red. It was a random choice, well….not really, the old man has a predisposition for movies by Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. The former, because his movies are often action-packed and the latter, because of her great acting. It is a story about retired people, a subject matter at the top of the old man’s mind as he contemplates retirement himself as more and more of his schoolmates show what freedom looks like upon retirement. More importantly, what it feels like. For the Spartan, freedom wasn’t free at all. For his fellow schoolmates, freedom reads like paradise to the old man. Wake up at whatever time, eat wherever or cook whatever you fancy or don’t cook at all. For someone who still works 8.30 – 4.30, this kind of freedom that awaits the old man feels exciting. The thought was enough to make his hands turn cold and hasten his heartbeats. In the movie Red, the retired folks were all ex-black ops agents. Their forte was just like the Spartans, standing and fighting for the state. No questions asked, they did as they were told, killed whoever, wherever and whenever. But having retired, they knew too much and it was their turn to be “disposed of”. So, the old team members reunited to repel the assassin sent to kill them. That was also a good example of retirement! So much to look forward to for the old man, right? Except he knows that in reality, retirement won’t be as testosterone-charged and exciting as in the movie Red.

The old man discovered that Red stood for Retired, Extremely Dangerous. At age 63, the old man often winced from the ‘knife-cut’ pain on his back whenever he woke up with the doona on the floor. That’s the problem with the not-hot-and-not-cold nights in late summer / early autumn. The doona is too heavy for such nights, so he is prone to simply kick it off the bed. But, the temperature would be quite cold just before daybreak, cold enough to inflict piercing pain around the scapula region of his back. “How dangerous can you be when you can’t withstand a night without your doona?” I asked him. He was silent as he raked his rather unkempt hair with his crooked fingers that are riddled with arthritis. His Mrs nagged him. “That shocking matted hair of yours is well overdue for a visit to the Japanese hair-dresser in Trinity Gardens,” she said in a tone filled with acidity. He seemed embarrassed and dipped his head, lost for words that normally flash in his mind like lightning. A fluff of goose down jettisoned itself from his receding hairline and floated onto his right foot, highlighting the grey yellow patch on his big toenail – a tell-tale sign of a fungal infection at best or a hint of kidney disease at worst. A closer look revealed two sets of toenails that were screaming for a proper pedicure. His Mrs had nagged him plenty of times the week earlier about personal hygiene but somehow to the old man, first impressions and looks mattered little. “What will become of you when you really retire?” I questioned him with a voice of authority. “Mope around all day in your pyjamas, unshaven, ungroomed with a shock of entangled hair and smelling of unbrushed teeth?” A confident executive in his younger days, he was regularly seen in his pinstriped suit, prancing along Pirie Street with his lanky boss with thick round glasses, a strong nasal twang and a clownish grin. After he was head-hunted to work in Sydney, the young executive started walking with a swagger, as would anyone whose commands were unquestioned and his sentences as final as the dicta of High Court judges. A couple of years after those heady days, he discarded his suits and became his own boss, an entrepreneur. He knew what freedom was. Yes, that’s right – a boss who answered to no one, and was never a yes-man appreciated what total freedom was. He was not beholden to the bank manager, the business was cashflow positive from day one. Freedom wasn’t free, it came with great costs – but he learned that lesson too late. The arrival of major international retail chains saw the leasing executives of shopping centres abandoning their support for his shops, and instead they rushed to kowtow to their new retail gods who had limitless cash to splash. He realised it was all a ruse to soften him up with rent-free terms and the occasional subsidised shop fit-out. Suppliers threw money at him by “buying” his business with monetary incentives such as free consignment stock, volume rebates and shelf-talker and shelf-display rebates. Fully-paid overseas holidays were annual events, sometimes so frequent that he even gave a long-serving manager one of the free trips to L.A. During those heydays, he felt like a tiger. His suppliers said, “moˈlon laˈve – come and take them,” and so he did. He took from them, everything. Discounts, volume rebates, advertising rebates, sponsorships, free holidays and so on. Sure, they were win-win deals. But, for the old man, those days are long gone. Today, he is fast approaching retirement, and although he still feels like a tiger, he is becoming a toothless one. The day he lets go the reins to his business is the day he becomes truly dispensable. That, after all, is the true sign of a good manager, right? To make everyone in his business dispensable.

Red. Retired and extremely dull. “Will it come to that?” the old man asked me. I did not have the heart to tell him, dispensable also means expendable. No one would care.

Art by the old man’s son at age 8. Hold on to those precious to us and don’t let go. Stay safe. Stay alive.