A Right To Spring & The Rite Of Spring

The old man with a rare smile. Photo by Anne Koh.

Summer arrived this week. The pollen-laden air is already dry, bringing some discomfort to the old man who is breathing laboriously like an asthma sufferer. He is swatting at humongous blowflies that instead of fearing the sight of a human being are relishing in disturbing his peace. They are buzzing with glee at what he is holding, a lilac biodegradable bag of smelly chicken bones and pork fat that he had spat out onto his dinner plate. It is only a short walk to the green bin behind his garage that the garbo will come to collect on Thursday but he is already wheezing from the effort. The sky is a lot higher up from earth, its cheery colour of light blue absent of any threat to the laundry hanging on the creaking Hills Hoist. It is also almost absent of clouds except for a smattering of light fluffy ones that are fighting a losing battle against the sun’s domineering rays. In a distant corner, the remnants of a cloud left a faint trail, waved goodbye and disappeared. The roses are in full bloom again replacing the ones decimated during the recent storm with even more vigour and colour. The fish in the pond next door are resting and not eating after a tumultuous week of uncontrolled sex. They are a spent force leaving a messy trail of wrecked water plants in their habitat and undeniable evidence of their mating prowess – trails of thick foamy sperm and clusters of fertilised eggs which they will devour once they recover from their orgy of spawning.

Irrefutable evidence of their crazed sexual encounter.

“What happened to spring?” the old man asked his Mrs as he rinsed his hands from the kitchen sink. It certainly felt like they went from the depressing grey and cold of winter straight into summer.

“We didn’t get spring,” the Mrs said.

“We have a right to many things these days, surely we have a right to spring!” he croaked in a hoarse squeaky voice.

The winter had been long and punishing on the old couple. Both had bragged to their neighbours from KL about ‘never being sick for over twenty years.’ The Chap and His Lady arrived a couple of months earlier to experience their first spring in Adelaide. The Chap, an avid golfer whose single digit handicap made him even more driven about the game, played (or practised) golf, rain or shine. The Lady loved the spring here – she thought the wintry weather was simply perfect. Any day without the scorching sun imprinting black spots on her pink skin was a wonderful day. She was the first to succumb to the coughing, a gift from their daughter and son-in-law, both oncologists, who had arrived from Toronto to attend their graduation ceremony. The Lady proved that wearing masks did not prevent the spread of germs. The old man had long suspected the mask mandate during Covid was simply a ruse to get the people to become obedient and learn to relinquish their right to movement as they saw fit, with or without a mask. His Mrs caught the same bug from The Lady and both sisters were soon coughing like wounded frogs. The old man, a long term user of Armaforce, held the misplaced confidence that the andrographis, olive leaf and echinacea mix would continue to protect him from bacterial infections, especially after learning that doctors in Victoria were being asked to prescribe Armaforce for post-Covid treatment. He would go on to be immune to their coughing fits for two weeks before he too began to splutter violently and lose his voice.

The lingering cold air and dampness did them no favours either. By the time he was close to finding his voice again, the Mrs caught a second round of the germs. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime for some reason. But, when night came, the coughing returned with a vengeance. In their bedroom, the couple sound like frogs and toads quarrelling all night. The pent-up mixture of air and yellowish phlegm from their bruised lungs only helped to make the vibrations of their vocal cords sound dissonant and coarse. Their neighbours would not be mistaken to think those were the sounds of frogs mating. All night they took turns to disturb each other’s sleep in their attempts to spit out stubborn phlegm from the depths of their throats. “Kawwww, Phooooi!” “Kaaaaaaa, Phooooi!”

The Lady was either riddled with guilt for being generous with her germs or born with extreme kindness. She was seen plying an assortment of traditional Chinese medicines and cough syrups to her next door neighbours. When those proved to be less effective than how she ‘marketed’ them like a professional chemist, she made regular home visits to check on her patients, each time bringing concoctions of ginger, honey, turmeric and pipa fruit (loquat). Into the third week, a sudden inspiration from her produced soups containing azuki beans, mung beans and barley. She insisted that they took her liquid concoction of chuan bei and nashi pear with honey “just before you go to bed.” The old man, a long term adherent of Intermittent Fasting, could not bring himself to break his discipline by consuming the tendrilleaf fritillary bulbs late at night. “All we need is a few days of warm spring weather,” the old man. “Where is spring?” he demanded.

Two months ago, the old man’s nieces finally persuaded him to join their local orchestra, the Burnside Symphony Orchestra. Both Stephanie and Corinne have been members for a few years already. They knew their uncle would love it. Formed in 1956, the orchestra is two years older than the old man. Back in those days, the orchestra, being one of the oldest amateur orchestras in the country, attracted a lot of support. Its concerts were regularly reviewed by critics who wrote for the South Australian newspapers. https://bso.org.au/

All three of them had commissioned their instruments from the same luthier in Florence, Paolo Vettori. The sound from a Paolo Vettori instrument is sensational and the fine craftsmanship shows the maker in his prime. To produce the geometry and symmetry of such beautiful scrolls and C-bouts, the spontaneity and flare can only come from a hand that has a masterful control to cut and shape with such finesse and boldness.

The old man had agreed to join his nieces earlier in the year but Covid had provided him with a good excuse to delay fronting up for rehearsals. When they prodded him again to give it a go, he said he would, “but let me see what’s in the programme.” He did not elaborate and they did not ask why that was relevant. If they are playing The Rite of Spring, then I am not joining. When his nieces left, I asked him,”So, what have you got against The Rite of Spring? I know it’s awful music to listen to – must be awful to play it too,” I said, showing off I have heard of Igor Stravinsky’s music.

“It’s not awful music!” he replied loudly, almost choking himself with his thick sputum. “It is just too difficult to play,” he said. “Too fast, too many rhythm changes and too many notes!” he added.

“Not awful?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. I had tried to listen to it many times, in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But, Stravinsky was “too modern” for me. Heavy metal music sounds tame by comparison! Manic, head-banging, dissonant and weird. “No beautiful melody,” I said, revealing my bias for classical and romantic music by the great composers, Beethoven and Rachmaninov. “It’s awful music,” I repeated. “It’s no surprise the audience in Paris rioted on the night of the premiere in 1913.”

That an audience attending a classical music concert could riot in the streets showed how bad the music was. It was actually a ballet, but no difference. Generally, audiences who know how to appreciate the fine arts think of themselves as intellectuals, highbrow and knowledgeable in high culture. It had to be the music that turned them into raging lunatics. For such “elite” people to be so outraged by the avant-garde score and Nijinky’s choreography that they turned violent in the streets and protested by throwing tomatoes at the composer, their primal emotions had to be stoked by a madman. Stravinsky broke every rule about what music should be. His music was atonal, coarse, harsh and raw. Even scary.

The old man vehemently disagreed. “In The Adoration of the Earth, when the cellos and double basses come on, the sounds conjure up Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. Amazing! They all copied him!” he said. “Terrifying music that was used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia to signal the arrival of a menacing T-Rex was actually music from Glorification of the Chosen One in Part 2 of the ballet,” he added. “In Evocation of the Ancestors, you could hear the passages of the music in John Williams’ Dune Sea of Tatooine in Star Wars. It would not be wrong to say that every Hollywood composer was, in one way or another, inspired by Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring,” the old man said, whilst giving me the look that I did not know what I was talking about.

The old man had harboured a dream that one day he would join an orchestra and relive the joy he felt when playing classical music with a group of friends during his formative years in his hometown, Penang. “The last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said to Athalie who sat next to him on his first night with the BSO. Athalie Scholefield, a tutti second violin in the orchestra for some 50 years, was very welcoming and encouraging. Long retired and free to enjoy her passion for music, the old lady with short straw-like hair and a wrinkled face looked young compared to her violin. It looks ancient and in bad nick, the old man thought to himself as he inspected her instrument. Always wearing a sweet smile, the diminutive woman who is often invisible behind her music stand said, “You’ll be alright, luv.”

Who raises himself on tiptoe, stands not firm

Who strains his stride, walks not far.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The old man reminded himself not to be unfair to himself. After all, he had no expectations to play in an orchestra so soon. His dream was to play the popular adagios and romantic melodies that he loved. Easy listening music that is at the same time easy to play. But, he would apply himself to the challenge of being a worthy tutti player. Inspired by his own children, he welcomed the opportunity to work hard so that he could make good music from his violin.

“It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect,” he said. “I clocked in the hours, averaging two hours daily,” he told Stephanie. 

“I always say practice makes progress!” she replied.

In total, there were nine rehearsals before concert night on 30 November. The old man missed one rehearsal due to a birthday party he did not wish to miss. The first night was a disaster – he knew the music well but he could hardly play the notes. So, like any tutti player in an orchestra, if you can’t play it, just pretend you can. His fingers moved with agility, his bow cut the air like a knife cutting a birthday cake, up and down, swiftly or slowly, as willed by the conductor, but all the time, he was squeaking like a poor church mouse barely audible even to himself. The final rehearsal was also a disaster. During the day, he had been able to suppress his cough but when night came, he became tired and agitated. He miscounted in the Vaughan Williams, unable to rejoin the orchestra for a full page. He was heard spluttering loudly behind his mask, his body visibly shaking with every violent cough as the night wore on. The next morning, he said to his Mrs, “I don’t know if I should attend the concert tonight. I don’t feel I’m ready.”

“You’ll be right,” she said. “Just pretend to play if you’re lost,” she said, matter-of-factly, with no emotion.

Suddenly, he remembered Athalie’s words to him on the first night. You’ll be alright, luv.

Burnside Symphony Orchestra Concert Night 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.

The concert was a sell-out. Everyone played to their best ability. The Mrs and The Lady were there to lend their support. Both were quite chuffed after the concert. “Not bad at all,” both chirped in unison. Reminding the sisters that they were all amateur players, the old man said pleasingly, “We were fantastic!” Suddenly, his cough had disappeared. Although wearing the now familiar light blue medical-grade disposable mask, he was hard to miss. His straight shoulder-length hair reminded me of the famous violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, whom I heard live in Prague. His nieces were glowing with excitement also as they congratulated him for taking part in the concert. “See, we said it would be fun, right?!” one of them screamed with delight. “Actually, Philip Paine was fantastic,” he said to his Mrs. The conductor of BSO was superb in holding the orchestra together. A horn player in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, his professionalism and strong leadership shown through the night.

BSO 30/11/2022. Brahms Double Concerto. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
BSO, take a bow. Bravo! 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
Corinne, the old man, and Stephanie, with their Paolo Vettori instruments. Photo by Anne Koh.

The old man was still pumped up and a high dose of adrenalin was still rushing through his veins even after he had helped move the chairs and music stands from the stage. “I am really pleased with my playing,” he said, beaming a huge smile behind his mask. “Told you you’d be alright,” the Mrs said. “Now, I can no longer say the last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said with a chuckle.

BSO Violin 1, Violin 2 and Viola sections. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.

Don’t Mind It, It’s Only His Mind

The old man laid on the floor next to his bed, curled up like an over cooked prawn. Buried in thick layers of quilt, he would have been mostly invisible if not for the violent shaking beneath. It was already the end of spring, yet winter stubbornly lingered on, adding misery and discomfort to the aged and the sickly. The room was pitch-black, distant light from street lamps were shielded by thick heavy curtains drawn tightly. The Mrs was sound asleep on the opposite side of their massive bed, undisturbed by his loud hoarse barking that violently pierced the cold night air with such regularity that sleep was becoming elusive for him. They used to hold each other close in bed until sleep took over and let air pass between their lithe bodies. But, they were newly weds then. The distance between the old couple when they sleep could be used as a measure of the length of their long marriage, the widening gulf between them a price of familiarity and staleness that inevitably envelopes any relationship that isn’t carefully and lovingly nurtured. He had slept on the floor for over three weeks, ever since she started coughing badly. The notion that he could avoid catching her germs by sleeping further apart proved to be wrong. That germs can be airborne and spread via sneezing or coughing did not stop him from trying anyway. Her throat had behaved like an aerosol can spraying with abandon throughout the house for weeks already. Besides, it was the only chance he had to sleep with his dog at his feet. The Mrs had insisted the dog had no rights to their bed.

That same morning, his 99-year-old mother refused to leave her bed when asked if she wanted her breakfast. The clock had already chimed eleven times half an hour earlier but she asked in her Ningbo dialect, “Chi so bo chee?” Why wake up?

“What should I do?” his sister asked.

“Let her be,” the old man said. “She is entitled to do whatever she wants, at her age.”

It is worrisome when a person cannot find a reason to wake up, the old man replayed that line of thought in his mind over and over again for the rest of the day. “There is always a reason to be alive, right?” I asked him. When we were kids, we could not wait to get up quickly to rush out to play with the other kids in the neighbourhood. As school students, we were keen to wake up to get ready for school, not because we looked forward to learning, but to avoid detention if we were caught arriving late. As adults, we had so many reasons to wake up – too many reasons, actually, and when we retire, we look forward to our hobbies or holidays or grandchildren. There is always a reason to wake up. “Life finds a reason for us to wake up until it doesn’t,” the old man replied.

The old man had always believed in the power of the mind. Mind over matter, he had told himself over and over again throughout his life. He spurned taking medicines for minor ailments. He avoided antibiotics like they were a plague. “Let my own body fight the germs,” he said when a hypochondriac friend suggested he go to the doctor. The old man had not read Henry Beecher’s classic 1955 work “The Powerful Placebo” but even as a teenager, he had told himself the power of the mind should not be underestimated. Today, of course, the placebo is considered a scientific fact. We can achieve great things if our minds tell us so.

“Why would nations go to war?” he asked. I could barely hear him even though he had found his voice back that day. His normally sonorous and somewhat mellifluous voice had deserted him. “You squeak like a church mouse,” I said. He had lost it for three days and had not taken any phone calls. A quiet man by nature, he savoured the peace in the silence.

“Because their leaders tell them they will be victorious?” I queried with a great uncertainty in my voice.

He looked up with an odd tilt to his head and opened his mouth to speak. No words came out from it and he quickly closed it. When you have nothing good to say, then say nothing. I could not tell if he thought I was right or wrong. But, it seemed logical enough. We do what our minds tell us. If our minds tell us it is right, we would go to war. For those who are less convinced, the people would unleash the force of God. Vox pouli, vox Dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.

The old man’s belief in the power of his mind took a hit this week. Nothing his mind told him had worked. His cough had not abated. He caught it from His Mrs who caught it from her sister who caught it from her son-in-law who came from Toronto to attend a graduation ceremony for radiologists and oncologists. His mind had told him he was not going to catch the germs. He was wrong. His mind told him it would not be severe when he caught it. He was also wrong. His mind told him he would not need to see a doctor. He was wrong again, although a tele-health consult wasn’t exactly ‘seeing’ the doctor. His mind told him he would not need any antibiotics. He told his doctor that and surprisingly, she agreed with him. “If that is what you want,” she said.

Despite feeling poorly, he had been practising hard for the upcoming concert with his local orchestra. It was exactly eight weeks ago when he joined the orchestra as a tutti player in the second violins. In that time, he had been secretly pleased with his progress. The concert programme, two hours in duration with the usual interval, would be worthy of a professional orchestra. “I could have been a musician,” he told me. Had he picked Vienna instead of Adelaide when he was 19, he would be a professional violinist today. “Why do you think that?” I asked. Maybe he has no idea how competitive and demanding the classical music industry is. So, he told me his story. When he picked up his violin eight weeks ago to learn the music for the concert, he could hardly play any of the notes. The changes in key signatures, the frequent variations in tempo and the fast passages were all too daunting for him. “I almost gave up, ” he confided. “I had to ask what tutti con sordini means!” So, he used the power of his mind to convince himself he would be ready for the concert. “And it is working,” he said. “Now, I can run through the semi-quavers without fear,” he added. But, I knew he was lying. I heard him practise just the other night. He did breeze through the fast passages nicely three times consecutively but when I asked him to do it one more time, “but imagine you’re playing in the concert now,” he faltered. His weak mind failed him.

The old man was born in Malaysia. Naturally, when the country reached an impasse with a result that did not produce a majority win for any of the political parties earlier this week, he was upset by the knowledge that the ex-PM who called for the early election but failed to win his own seat would remain as the caretaker PM whilst the King sorted out the mess. “So, Malaysia now has an unelected guy as their caretaker PM after the people have voted. This is not democracy,” he said. It’s so demonic he coined the word demoncracy.

“The people have voted. When there’s a stalemate with no party attaining a simple majority, the King gets to do his job,” a friend said.

“This is where it’s so wrong. Even you buy this crap, bro. The Agong doesn’t get to decide. The people do, in a democracy. The people have already decided. The party that has the highest vote can choose to form a minority government,” the old man replied.

“When in Rome, do what the Romans do. Australia may have a different system than ours which is designed after Westminster. The stalemate of not having a simple majority is unprecedented for Malaysia.
Further, our Constitution which is the highest form of law in Malaysia has defined the rules upfront. To me, there’s nothing wrong with applying due process of the rule of law. So, please, have some respect for our Constitution,” his friend said.

Instead of biting his tongue and sealing his lips, the old man continued with the discussion about what he thought was relevant given the circumstances the people were faced with.

“What does the Malaysian Constitution say? I do not think it specifically covers minority governments but that in itself does not mean minority governments are not allowed. Even the UK had minority governments before. Australia’s system is also a hand-me-down from the same colonial master; we are famous for our hung parliaments,” the old man said. Troubled by the fact that his good friend had found him disrespectful, he asked his friend to show him the clause in the Constitution that says the King must decide on which party can form a majority government, believing that nothing in the Constitution expressly excludes the formation of a minority government. A minority government can still govern as long as it has the support of the majority of the House.

Another friend advised the old man not to be angry. “I know you know a lot but you don’t know all. If I were you, I would live happily in Australia and enjoy playing your violin….. Please don’t get angry, we should be more concerned with how best to carry on living.”

The old man, surprised by that, replied, “I am not angry at all. I try to be stoic and Stoics do not get emotional so easily. I was merely engaging in discussing current affairs that are important to Malaysia but I was disturbed that an old friend would find me disrespectful of the Malaysian Constitution. At what point did I become disrespectful?”

Knowing that he had inadvertently upset a close friend, the old man was quick to apologise. “Sorry, I am wrong to misunderstand you. You said the King gets to do his job. You didn’t say he gets to decide who will be PM. Ascertaining numbers and then appointing the PM is not deciding per se because I like to believe that voters decide the outcome in a democracy. Not a single individual, not even the monarch.”

The old man looked fatigued and withdrawn. But, there would be no self-pity, although there was a moment when he looked too self-absorbed to listen to my advice. I comforted him by reminding him he always knew himself to be annoying, and “when you annoy people, what do you expect to get?” I asked. His silence emboldened me. So, I asked again.

“What do you expect, my friend? Was it not you who told me even your wife found you annoying that you can’t kill a garden snail?”

“A snail is harmless. It doesn’t kill a living thing,” his brain scrambled to justify himself.

“You may think you have no hurtful or harmful intent, but you’re useless to her when you won’t even protect the veggies in the garden!” I said, revealing my bias that even I found that annoying.

“When I was younger, I would not even dream of apologising if I felt I had done or said nothing wrong. Today, I am often the first (the quickest) to apologise. It does not matter if I believe I have done or said nothing wrong, but the fact remains that the other party is aggrieved. That alone deserves an apology,” the old man said.

“True, I suppose,” I said, finally finding a reason for a truce.

The old man continued. “I used to rationalise that we can’t control how others think or feel, if they are upset by an innocent remark, one made without any ill intentions, then so be it. But, as I grew older, I just did not want to lose any more friends or make new enemies. Peace is what I seek.”

“I hope you won’t lose this friend,” I said. “He will find it in his heart to forgive you. You guys go all the way back to 1965!”

We are like pellets of incense falling on the same altar.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.15

We are all the same, living in this world for only a very short time. Some may be taller or shorter, richer or poorer, younger or older, faster or slower, stronger or weaker. None of it matters. Measuring against one another is not only foolish, it is toxic and a waste of time. Like pellets of incense, some will fall sooner than others but we will all duly fall and turn to dust. As insignificant as dust but as equal and no different as one another.

No dust here. Painting by Anne Koh.

It’s Plain. Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain.

Last night, the old man volunteered to sleep over at his mother’s house. The grand dame is 99. She needs to be looked after even though she reckons she is still lucid and able to tend to her own needs. Her children no longer argue with her about that – they simply take turns to spend time with her. “A mother would never spurn her children spending time with her, right?” the old man asked me. A silly question that did not earn a reply. So, I remained silent. He appeared to be sniffling and swallowing with difficulty, as if he had a fishing hook stuck in his throat. He looked far from his chirpy self.

“Are you not well, mate?” I asked.

He looked confused and didn’t know what to say. Lost for words, he seemed to have reverted to the old days of keeping quiet and letting his Mrs dominate the conversations, she being the life of any party. He promised me he would speak up and express himself clearly when he reached 60. This is unusual, I thought to myself. I have not seen him behave like a zombie for years. Sitting there ashen-faced, lost in his own world with lifeless eyes that look blankly into space, he twiddled his fingers and left his mouth slightly open like a fly trap. Suddenly, it dawned on me – Richard Koo, a friend in Sydney had just shared news that he had just been tested positive and promptly listed his symptoms. “I had shivers, high temperature, brain fog, cramps, chesty coughs, headache, chest tightness, weakness, and my mouth tasted terrible!” Brain fog! I screamed in my head. The old man must have Covid, I decided before excusing myself to use the loo as a good reason for leaving the room. “I am positive I tested negative,” he said, confusing me temporarily when I returned to sit in the adjacent room. “Anyway, why do we bother with a RAT?” he asked. “The results are unreliable and it costs money to buy a test kit, do you think the average bloke would bother?” I agreed with him. No one in their right mind would pay to do a test and then to forgo his wages and risk losing his job to someone else if he was positive.

“I slept in my mother’s house last night and must have caught a chill,” he said.

“Why? Did you and your Mrs fight again? You promised me you’d be stoic and shut your mouth.”

“Nah, I had to go look after my mother,” he said.

“The spare room was stuffy and musty.”

“It was foul! I couldn’t breathe and suddenly I felt sick,” he complained.

He conjured in my mind a picture of a dank room filled with junk from yesteryears that had not seen the sun’s beam for decades. Stone-walls ravaged by salt damp and collapsing cornices of ceiling weighed down by mould and untold years of gravitational force. The aluminium sliding window remained stuck to its rail, caked in dust and corpses of blowflies that struggled in vain to penetrate the glass. “Your mum’s house? I thought you guys have money to fix such things,” I judged.

“No, no, nothing like that,” he dismissed my conclusion that their mother lives in a run-down dilapidated building.

But, it turns out I wasn’t too wrong about the collection of junk in the room. A bedroom, with a solitary bulb emitting a weak halation of light that won’t reach the corners of the room, turned into a store-room is doubly criminal, I thought. One, it is unhealthy and wasteful of prime living space and two, junk should be binned, not stored to make the house look like a junkyard. But, these points did not cross the old man’s mind at all. Instead, he told me he felt elated to be “home” once more. The last time he slept in his parents’ home was in Penang in December 1980, just before he got married. “Crikey,” he said. “That’s forty odd years ago,” he added. I had always assumed he was good at simple arithmetic, so it was shocking that he could not immediately tell me the exact number. Their mid-century furniture still adorned the old sandstone Federation-style bungalow. The gentle pastel lilac headboard that his head rested on somehow soothed him, bringing childhood memories of an insomniac’s nights counting sheep and if that did not work, relieving himself with his hand to sap away his youthful hormone-packed energy. Over the years, the same furniture in the house went from trendy to classic to out-dated to problematic junk but now they are back in fashion. The books on the shelves are still the same ones he saw in their Scotland Close house except they are coated with a thicker layer of dust and the pages have turned yellow. The big photos that used to be prominently displayed in his childhood home are still displayed here. But these aren’t photos of a British monarch or a European-looking Jesus Christ or a smiling Virgin Mary looking downwards from the sky to grace their house. “These are precious,” he said with a tinge of love in his voice. There is a big photo of his father on his own and another one of his mother. There is also one of their family – everyone was there bar one. It was often the same child – the youngest daughter – who missed out on these ‘official’ portraits for whatever reason. A small photo of his parents framed by the kind of timber no longer used today to frame pictures sits proudly on the bedhead screaming to be seen but is often missed. Hardly anyone walks into the bedroom. It’s a no-go zone these days, “lest you be accused of stealing from her,” he warned me. “Dementia makes a person delusional and suspicious,” I said.

It is now used primarily as a store-room for Ma’s now old unused yards and yards of fabrics bought with great purposes in mind and an assortment of replicas of antiques wrapped in really old newspaper and protected from dust by greying plastic bags. The news in the old newspaper would probably be more interesting than the fake antiques, although these artefacts are probably worthy of being valued as antiques today. The colour was never vibrant even when the photo was newly developed but the passing years were still kinder to the photo than to the couple in it. They would have been in their early fifties when the photo was taken. Back then they looked old, so old he was forever worried they might pass away when he was overseas, but now, they looked so young. So much younger than the old man whose eyes could not be peeled away from it. The couple married young, he was 24, six years older than her. They had dreams to make a good life for themselves. He had tenacity, drive and a strong ambition to be successful in the new country which he had begun to call ‘home’. They worked hard, lived within their means, and never complained about their humble beginnings. Spartan and owning very little, he survived a Japanese torture cell for being wrongly accused as a communist sympathiser. He explained to the interrogators that he did not know the man that he was with, he knew him as a chess player and that was all they did – played chess at the roadside kerb before being arrested. “Don’t explain, it doesn’t help,” I said. Giving excuses and coming up with justifications do not help, no one will listen.

She escaped the attention of the Japanese soldiers and the clutches of the Kempetei. Before the war was over, parenthood gave them a new meaning to life. They worked hard, built a business and invested in coconut and rubber plantations. They laughed, cried, fought, quarrelled, but stuck together through thick and thin. There were good times and there were bad times. But throughout the business cycles, they believed in education. All eight children were sent overseas for tertiary education and to pursue their own dreams – a mighty feat that was not common in the 60s and 70s. He retired at 60, heeding the warning signs of a stroke that paralysed his left side for a few months. His spirituality was heightened and he sought solace and answers up a hill in Penang. A good friend, Arumugam, a chettiar, lent him his bungalow for a few months, ex-gratia, since the Indian millionaire owed him some favours. In the photo, he wore his trademark loving smile and looked smart in his brown suit and brown hat. He died in 2007 but lives on in the old man’s mind. His Ma oozed sophistication, he reckoned her body-hugging cheongsam would have tantalised a few men in their neighbourhood. She is still beautiful today – I have a photo of her taken last week to prove that.

“It was a great feeling, like a home-coming,” he said. Somehow, the chance to sleep in his mother’s home awoken long-harboured feelings of filial piety and transported the old man to his youthful past. Everything in there took him ‘home’ to his childhood. The furniture, the photos, the rosewood dining suite and elaborately carved lounge suite all played their part but it was the smell of familiarity – the smell of old things and old people – his parents – that seized his emotions and made him yearn for long-gone happy and worry-free days as a kid.

“Why didn’t I go back more often?” he asked. He bit his tongue. He was about to complain that he had responsibilities as a father and husband to his own family.

“I should have slept over at least once when Pa was alive,” he moaned. He would have liked that.

“It’s alright,” I placated the old man. There is no need to feel any guilt. Birds have to fly off from their nest and so do we. “No justification is required, and there is no one to blame, not even yourself,” I added. “It is plain, don’t complain, don’t explain,” I said.

Never complain, never explain.

Benjamin Disraeli, British PM. 1868, 1874-1880

“Today is a big day for Malaysia,” the old man said. Malaysians are voting for a new government. Everyone is hopeful this day will usher in a new dawn for a better tomorrow for all Malaysians. “Many of my friends will be voting for Harapan,” he said. Harapan means hope.

Cease to hope and you will cease to fear

Hecato of Rhodes

Both of these are projections into the future of which we have totally no control. ‘Hope and want’ lead to ‘fear and worry’. “I think it is responsibility that gives us the courage and tenacity to act, to do something that will change the outcome, hoping we get what we want is a wish for something that is out of our control. It’s rather unproductive, I think,” he said. Hope is a wish, a want, a desire. Often unrealised. Since we hope, there’s nothing to stop us from hoping for more. Unrealised hopes can wreck us! It’s useless to sit at home and hope for something to happen. “It is as frustrating as praying,” he added. Praying to God for something is akin to asking God to change his mind. If an event is set in stone by the almighty and perfect deity, why would we think our prayers or requests will change His mind? God is not fickle, He is surely not indecisive and if he needed to change his mind and change an outcome, he would be admitting that He got it wrong in the first place. That simply cannot be! His decision is final – why change something that was already perfect?

“Don’t hope,” he said to his friends. Just go out and vote! Change the outcome! Change the government!

Dementia, For Sure

The old man came by for coffee the other day. He was impressed by the coffee machine that has replaced my old moka pot. Normally, he would sit by the pond and enjoy the serenity of the sound of gentle water falling on pebbles. But, the gleaming machine caught his eyes as he wandered into the kitchen to say ‘Hi’ to The Mrs. The Mrs showed no interest in the minutiae of the workings of a coffee machine. She was only there to see if her cappuccino was ready and whether I had added enough cocoa powder to hers. The old man was asking me why I got the Delonghi and not the Breville Oracle Touch.

“You’d want to get a darker, more consistent crema that’s thicker, richer, and more complex, right?” he asked. “You told me the Breville has a dual boiler, and that means the coffee won’t be under-extracted and therefore won’t be sour and salty with a thin, barely-there finish, remember?” “I was so sure you’d go for the Breville,” he added.

“So many questions but one simple answer will tell you why,” The Mrs muttered to herself loudly enough so that the old man could hear her.

“Yeah, it’s an early Christmas pressie from our neighbour,” I said.

“The Chap is ultra generous but you just can’t pick something that is 3X the price,” The Mrs explained.

The Chap had come by earlier that morning with the gift. He normally kept his hair short, always preferring a crew cut that made him look fashionable like someone from mainland China in the 80s. But, he had just returned from a fortnight’s golfing holiday in New Zealand playing in famous courses like the Te Arai Links. His hair had grown long enough to be spiky, giving him the aura of a punk rock-star. His beaming face with its gibbous eyes and broad smile was the epitome of happiness, as if the Kiwi sunshine and fresh air he absorbed in recent weeks had given him a booster shot of happy hormones. As he unboxed the espresso machine, he rattled off all the main features of the Delonghi like a salesman in a Myer store. “See this here? For maximum efficiency, you must remember to descale it, blah-blah-blah-blah,” he continued, pushing this or that forcefully without any concern of them breaking, pressing one button or the other a bit too roughly, totally oblivious that my attention span was short. The joy of giving, I thought to myself. Could Santa actually be happier than a kid in a lolly shop, I wondered.

I said to the old man,”Wilson was wrong, you know.”

“Ask and Ye shall receive. Seek and Ye shall find,” our devout friend often said. “Don’t you agree it is truer to say, ‘Give and you’ll be happier?'” I asked. Don’t ask and don’t seek. Just give. When we ask or wish for something, we run the risk of being disappointed – usually, we don’t get what we want or who we want. Giving is easier. A sure winner. Giving brings joy to both giver and receiver. Everyone is happy. That was what The Chap taught me.

“Great coffee,” the old man said, after slurping the last drop from his cup.

“Want another one?” I offered.

“Sure, why not.”

When I handed him another cup filled with badly frothed milk, he asked, “How’s your mum?” I ignored his question, bothered by the extra water added to his coffee during the steaming and frothing process, I said, “I didn’t know frothing milk needs skill!”

“No love heart,” the old man said cynically, while making no attempt to hide his disappointment at the heavy coat of cocoa on the thin layer of froth.

How is my mum? I kept asking myself. The old man’s question disturbed me and for a moment, I forgot what I was going to do or say next. Visibly disturbed, I excused myself and left the old man to enjoy his coffee by himself.

How is my mum? She’s well, I suppose, for her age. For your age. I used to be bothered by those three words when used on me. I was annoyed when my doctor said “You’re fine, for your age.” I was equally pissed off when my optician said “Your eyes are healthy, for your age.” Ma is 99. Anyone will say she’s great, for her age.

Elegant, feminine and graceful, Ma cultivated a sophisticated poise. Maybe that is unfair. Deprived of formal education, she grew up in a coconut plantation in Bagan Datoh where her dad worked as a laundryman for the wealthy owner during British colonial rule. She never met any of the family members, not even the English lady of the manor. She was a kampong girl whose world was rather small and secluded, and the people in it were mostly ignorant and unschooled, happy to be near coconut trees and paddy fields. No, she didn’t cultivate poise, she was born refined and respectable.

Ma loves to party, even at 99. Photo by Francis Koh, Nov 2022.

Although without a formal education, Ma taught herself to read and write in Chinese. She can get by with some English words too. Ei-c-keling for ice-cream, ma-kah-way for microwave oven, pang-sai for Burnside, our suburb. After all, she has lived in Australia since 1988 and follows mainstream news ardently on TV, mainly for their weather forecasts. Prior to the advent of weather apps on mobile phones, she was our “weather girl”, the go-to authority whenever we needed the latest weather report. She doesn’t use a mobile phone, so the radio and TV are still her sources for weather updates. “Why the preoccupation with the weather?” the old man asked. “Maybe it’s to do with her involvement in the laundry business,” I suggested. Pa was also a laundryman. Firm, authoritative but considerate and kind, she has been our family’s matriarch. She was the eldest child in her family and she grew up the quickest during the war years to help support her siblings. “So, she earned some respect and recognition too amongst your cousins,” the old man deduced.

Ma was infallible, incapable of being wrong about dates, anniversaries and historical events. Her memory was like a hard disc drive or in today’s parlance, a blockchain that is forever verifiable and non-editable. She remembered everyone’s special days – our birthdays, wedding anniversaries, when we first left home, when and for how long we returned for our summer holidays, the dates and circumstances of her friends’ deaths, and so on. She was a great source of information about prices. Indeed, I do wonder if she was the only source in the whole world for grocery prices in Penang for much of the 20th century and Adelaide’s grocery prices since 1988.

But, she is succumbing to dementia. “Rather rapidly,” I said to the old man. Ma, to me, is in Stage 5 Dementia. The old man agreed. We ought to discuss how to cope with Stage 6 before she gets there. Let’s get up to speed with this. I urged a sister just a few days ago. She was still not understanding or unwilling to accept the gravity of Ma’s decline, I felt. In recent years, I had implored them not to argue with Ma (unnecessary or otherwise) – there is simply no need to prove her wrong, that the recollection of her history was inaccurate or that her accusations were unfounded or hurtful.

She is our mother. She is very old. Her mental state is declining rapidly. She can’t help it, dementia makes her confused, delusional, suspicious, even distrusting. Ma was trying to figure out how to put on her vest and jacket one night whilst preparing for bedtime. She was at it again the next morning. She kept turning her vest this way and that way and gesturing to swing the garment over her head repeatedly. “She was probably recalling how she was dressed in her childhood,” I suggested.

“It’s like a puzzle for her. Not sure why….” a sibling replied.

“Get up to speed, it’s called dementia,” I said. That was a terrible mistake.

I suggested to my sibling that a proper understanding of dementia is necessary for us so that we can care for her appropriately, with extra compassion and understanding.

“I know,” she said. “But, don’t be rude.”

“No rudeness intended. I can’t help how other people perceive words,” I replied.

“You’re assuming and telling me about Ma’s dementia. Haha. Ridiculous,” she said, her ‘haha’ sounding fake.

“’Words are the source of misunderstandings’—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince. I love this book, simple yet enlightening,” I said, attempting in vain to explain that she misunderstood me.

“We need to exercise decorum and maintain some goodwill. Even more so when the family has to work together to care for our mum,” she continued lecturing me.

“Absolutely! For me, there was nothing derogatory about asking someone to get up to speed – used often enough in a commercial environment. As I said, no rudeness intended. But I can’t help it if others are over-sensitive or intentionally misunderstand. Words are dangerous if people wish to interpret them negatively.”

“When you tell someone “to get up to speed”, you are implying that they are a bit slow, i.e. ‘stupid’. If you fail to see that, you may be suffering the onset of dementia. No rudeness intended,” another sister joined in the fray.

The old man understood what I was saying. “Yeah, give them this scenario of a business meeting,” he suggested. “Before we start the meeting, I’m going to get you up to speed with the latest developments.”

Who would be offended by that? There is no implication of slowness or stupidity, just a suggestion to get up to speed, get informed.

“Please get up to speed with ‘Get up to speed’,” I replied to the other sibling.

A third sibling chimed in. “Piss off.”

Piss off just means, ooh, go away, I don’t need this information. That was the suggestion.

“Yeah, it’s usually quite harmless amongst friends, but it depends on the inflection or tone or intention,” I said.

The conversation was spiralling out of control. My intention was for everyone to be on the same page, so that we understand what is happening to our mother. She can’t help it if she thinks someone is stealing from her or some of us are trying to push her to a nursing home. She can’t help it if she thinks everyone is wrong and she is the only one who is right. Dementia is cruel to the patient, robbing her of her memory and sanity, rendering her child-like at times. She can be easily irritable, frustrated with her inability to communicate when words stop at the tip of her tongue or memories fade; she can be angry, slamming the table with previously unseen violence and force; often she is even delusional and suspicious of our intentions and behaviour. Why do we need to be offended by someone who is exhibiting all the symptoms of dementia? It’s dementia, for sure.

https://www.mybrainco.com/dementia-stages-prevention-and-management/

Ma’s often lazy to get up from bed in the mornings these days. I don’t blame her. Why get up and face the cold when we can snuggle in the warmth under the soft doona? “A full bladder and an empty stomach forces one to get up,” she lamented.

Last Saturday, I cooked her sar hor fun, one of her favourite Penang street foods. She took a small bite and looked at me somewhat coyly and hesitantly. Maybe with a wee bit of a pitiful look too. I don’t know why but this isn’t suitable for me,” she said, pushing away her plate. She pushed away a serving of her favourite Hakka too-kah also. Not so long ago, she requested The Mrs cook for her that signature dish; she loved the extra stickiness the gelatin of pork trotters left on her lips. We could have been easily upset. We could have felt unappreciated – that the effort we made to buy the ingredients and cook her a superb lunch was all for nothing. But, how wrong would we have been? I looked at Ma and she was simply adorable. Child-like and cute, she was waiting to be served the durian that was displayed on the middle of the table. “Where’s the ei-c-keling?” she asked.

Red roses for Ma. Photo by Anne Koh, 12 Nov 2022

Gory Crowning & Crowning Glory

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Penny kept muttering under her breath. She was wearing a mask well before facial masks became a mandatory item for everyone in the world. Petite and gentle with a matching sweet smile, she was offered as his replacement dentist. Looking at her delicate hands, the old man was happy to change to her when her father retired as head dentist of their family practice. Her father had massive hands, much like an old cobber’s callused hands in the Aussie outback, if the truth be told, quite unsuitable for a dentist – massive hands meant that he was prone to knock the old man’s teeth unknowingly with his tools. It was a sun-dried cobber with more cavities than teeth in his mouth who taught the old man when he first arrived as a teenager in the great southern land of the aborigines that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Missing teeth are just that, missing, not broken. So, there was nothing to fix. The sun-dried cobber probably learned that from a descendant of the natives who once roamed the land freely before the arrival of Willem Janszoon, a Dutch navigator, and some 165 years later when James Cook claimed their land for King George III, the bloke who wore the crown in Great Britain at the time.

The population of the natives were decimated by the white settlers, through disease and violent wars. Stones, spears and boomerangs didn’t save them. Deep knowledge and understanding of the topography of the island didn’t save them either, not when those they welcomed with open arms came with double-barrelled shotguns, rifles and cannons. Victors write the history, of course; very few gory details were recorded by those who represented the crown. It is important to therefore recognise that the great southern land was not conquered. Neither was it invaded. Words are important to convey the right narratives with the right nuances. Australia was a colony of settlement, not of conquest. Land sold to the settlers were registered with ‘freehold title’ whilst ‘remaining’ land that hasn’t yet been sold today is known as ‘Crown land’.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the old man said to Penny when she recommended crowning his lower right molar. He would not be able to recognise her if he came across her outside her building. Most of the time masked, the only time he could have a short glimpse of her face was after she had finished roaming inside his mouth with her finger. But, his vision was poor without his glasses, as he was required to leave them on the bench by the nurse, to prevent water and blood splashing on them, I suppose. He was one of those annoying patients who asked a lot of questions, but she had a clever way of dealing with that. “Open wider, please,” she would simply say, as she pressed down his tongue or moved it to the left or right. Time is money, you want to know more about dentistry, Google please. The old man understood that logic but he could not help himself. Maybe he just wanted to delay the inevitable discomfort that marred every visit to his dentist. Penny first suggested he crowned his tooth some four years ago, well before the pandemic. This was the third dental check-up since then. Check-ups used to be half-yearly but Covid was a good reason to ignore the reminders to visit Penny. She showed him the x-ray. “See, there and there?” she pointed to the dark blotches on the grey image of the x-ray. Amalgam dominated that corner of his mouth and made it look like a cave with lots of minerals to mine. “It’s barely holding the teeth here and here,” she lectured. “We can’t say when it will break.” So, the old man finally acquiesced to the crowning but still gave Penny a dirty look. That’s how they generate more income. He had trained his own staff the same way. Find reasons why a customer will want to buy more than the one item they came to the store for. I only came for a regular check-up, he reminded himself.

“I mean, how can you like a person who rushes out of the room and leaves you alone, all vulnerable and feeling abandoned, whenever she takes an x-ray of your mouth?” the old man asked. Penny rushes back to the room after the machine had zapped him with some radiation. “It’s pretty harmless, no need to fret,” she said. “Pilots are exposed to much more from cosmic radiation,” she explained.

“She’s alright,” I argued. “I find her gentle, professional and caring,” I said. “She does not over-service and she surely does not over-charge,” I continued defending her.

A fortnight later, the old man was back for his crowning. There was no ceremony although the nurse applauded and congratulated him for making the right decision. “Thanks, Charity,” Penny said to her nurse. Looking at the colour of her skin, the old man decided she must be African, in all likelihood, Sudanese. The Sudanese were the latest wave of refugees coming to Australia from a war-torn region. Charity’s main task was to shove a suction hose into his mouth, and skilfully manoeuver it so that he did not swallow any of the wastes. Throughout the procedure, the old man sounded like Darth Vader, “haawwthh, caaawwthh, haawwthh…” as the suction hose worked overtime. Penny was all the while busy with her electric drill. The sound of drill chipping away amalgam had to be one of the most terrifying sounds she could make. Menacing at his wide-opened mouth, she destroyed the amalgam that had protected his gums from rotting ever since he was a teenager. Why can’t they design a drill that produces the soothing sound of a clarinet?

The old man clasped his hands together tightly as the metallic shrill of the drill reached a crescendo. Telling himself to breathe deeply and relax did not work. Penny noticed his body was stiff like a body in a coffin. She knew she had not waited long enough for the drug to work. She was already twenty minutes behind schedule, and if she could make up lost time, this was it. Waiting for the procaine to numb his mouth was like watching the hands of a clock move. Boring and time-consuming. “Do you want me to top up the drug?” she asked. “No, no. I’m alright,” the old man replied. The night before, he had read about Nietszke’s ‘love of fate’ amor fati – everything that happens to us in life is necessary. It is not just accepting our fate, it is loving it, whatever happens, good or bad, pleasure or pain. The old man had a long time ago adopted the method to cope with pain – by loving it. Amor doloris helped him to anticipate pain at a dentist’s chair in Sydney. “When you anticipate pain, you actually welcome it,” the old man said. “That dentist was rough and uncaring, oblivious to my discomfort and fear of the incredibly gelid pain that shot through the facial nerves up my head every time he loaded the drug too quickly into my gums.”

Penny interrupted his thoughts. “Can you add another cotton swab please?” she said to Charity. The old man did not taste the blood oozing out of his gums – Charity had done a great job with the suction hose – he only knew he was bleeding because Penny told him so. “Sorry, I couldn’t avoid it,” she voluntarily admitted. After the procedure, the old man looked for the swabs to check how much blood he had lost but they had been swiftly discarded into the bin to hide the evidence. “No gory details to report here,” he said to me.

It must have been awful to live in the era before painkillers were discovered. Apparently, the Sumerian clay tablet, (approx 2500 BC) listed opium as an analgesia. “How long ago did dentists use analgesics?” the old man asked Penny. Not knowing what the aborigines used, Penny said it was known that the early British settlers used some form of painkillers to extract their teeth in the late 18th century in Australia. “Maybe opium?” she suggested. It wasn’t until September 1847 that ether was used in New Zealand to perform a dental extraction on a prisoner at a Wellington jail. This practice later spread to Australia.

Penny agreed it was terrible luck to be living in past centuries. A patient of hers had shared a story of a great-aunt’s experience on a dentist’s chair. In those days, lucky brides-to-be were given complete dentures as a wedding present. Dental decay meant most brides did not have a full set of teeth to show in their wedding photos. The great-aunt wanted to look beautiful on her wedding day, so what better present than a chance to remove all her remaining teeth in exchange for a full set of dentures? Unfortunately for her, the husband-to-be had a big row with the dentist who naturally refused to offer his services after that. No matter, the husband-to-be knocked out all her teeth without any numbing drugs.

Last week, the old man attended his niece’s graduation ceremony. It had been delayed for three years due to Covid. The 2022 graduation ceremony of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists was held in Adelaide. Three quarters of the new Fellows were in Clinical Radiology. Fellows in Radiation Oncology occupied only two rows of seats – a small exclusive batch of highly intelligent individuals. Numbering only thirty seven, these were the crème de la crème of the College. His niece and her hubby were amongst them – of course, that was why he kept talking about them to me. In 1977, the old man was just one of a handful of Asians in his school at Unley High. He attended classes for less than six weeks there before moving to Norwood High. In Norwood, they called him Bruce after the great kung-fu master. Adelaide then was like a mini Athens. Graced by mainly beautiful Greek girls who were somewhat enchanted by the odd-looking Chinese boy, they showed keenness in his fighting skills. “Show us how to do a flying kick,” the prettiest girl in the group asked. “Are you ‘black belt’?” another lass asked. The bespectacled boy was of course too scrawny to convince the girls he was a ‘black belt’, so his standard reply was “Master taught us never to show off our skills in vain and never to fight when we don’t have to.” With a slight bow, he would leave them agog, but more impressed with his mysterious skills.

“How the world has changed,” the old man said to me. At the ceremony, it was the Asians that dominated the occasion. The graduates were predominantly Indian (or Sri Lankan?) ethnicity closely followed by those with Chinese surnames. He was immensely proud to be there. Now when an Asian boy is approached by other students, he won’t be asked the colour of his belt. Kung-fu is no longer the only domain of an Asian. “In just about any field of excellence, you’d expect to see Asians stand tall,” he said. “Perhaps not in football,” I replied acidly. The old man was surprised the Hippocratic Oath no longer applied to modern-day doctors. The new Fellows were all required to swear to the Declaration of Geneva. “The sentence about not permitting the patient’s age, disease, social standing or other factors to affect their duty to the patient astounded me, ” the old man confided to me after the event. “Why? I can’t see how that is at odds with medical ethics,” I said. “Well… remember during the height of Covid when hospitals around the world could not cope with the heavy influx of patients to the hospitals? Did they not have to behave like God in choosing who lived and who died? Did they not sacrifice the aged and the infirmed to save the young and fitter patients? And would they not save their family members first if push comes to shove?” I looked at him silently and simply walked away. At that moment, I perfectly understood why most of his friends found him annoying. The Declaration is a set of ethics that prohibits discrimination. Why question it?

His niece’s hubby swept off not one but three special Research Prizes and Grants. “He is perhaps the only one promoted to Associate Professor,” he continued to brag. “I am so proud of them,” he carried on enthusiastically. I did not want to dampen his spirit, so I tried my best to look interested and engaged in the solo conversation with a body language that suggested respect and awe. I learned that they are now working with the best of the best in Toronto. The legends in the business of oncology. The ones whose books are now text books for university students around the world in their field of medicine. They are just a doorstep away from their idols, the authorities in their field. The gods of oncology. Experts like Arjun Sahgal whose work in spinal and brain cancers and central nervous system tumours have won him multiple awards, or Laura Lawson whose work on breast cancer needs no introduction. The recognition they have received and the respect they have earned in the field of oncology is a crowning glory of their complete dedication to serve humanity in medicine.

At their daughter’s graduation ceremony 28th Oct 2022.

So Much More At Sixty-Four

It was an awesome week for the old man. But, who wants to read about someone else’s good news, right? Otherwise, there would be at least one newspaper in the whole world that covers only good news. “No, somehow we gravitate to bad news,” the old man told me. “Maybe, that is the price we pay for human evolution,” he added. I did not ask him to elaborate. I got the gist of it quickly enough. As a species, we have been around for over 200,000 years, having evolved from probably Homo erectus who roamed the earth some 2 million years ago. It is knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge that has kept us ahead of the pack, and the most urgent knowledge that we constantly seek are the bad ones such as wars, accidents, diseases, misfortunes, etc. So, our attention is geared towards being quick to receive bad news that may threaten our well-being and our survival for that matter. Local news that spread fastest in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ such as the mad dog that was roaming the streets, or Miss Maudie’s house that burned down after the first snowfall, or Tom Robinson being falsely accused of raping a white girl weren’t about gossips but were pertinent to the folks’ security and safety. “So, was that what you got from the book?” the old man asked. “We can’t suppress bad news from spreading, it is ‘like wrapping fire in a paper bag.’” I replied. “Or carrying water in a fishing net,” I added, enjoying myself with such useful metaphors.

I wasn’t the least interested to ask the old man what good news he had. He had invited me to ask him when he came round my office the other day. “What do you reckon happened to me the other night?” he asked with a lopsided smile, carelessly revealing stained teeth that paid the price of decades of drinking tea and coffee without a straw. He turned sixty-four a few weeks ago but it seemed his body had since then decided to age at lightning speed. He wasn’t aware of it until his Mrs exclaimed after complaining about his long hair, “You look smart in your new suit but golly gosh, you are ageing so quickly.” “You should shave off your beard, it’s nothing but a white patch of hair that makes you look older,” she said without adding any solution to the absence of eyebrows that had mysteriously faded away at some unknown point in time. Not one to look at himself in the mirror, he took a selfie whilst resting in the park after a vigorous walk with his dog. “Dammit, she’s right,” he muttered to himself on the wooden bench that he assumed as his own since no one else uses it. Shocked at the sight of his own face, he breathed deeply, his body subconsciously sucking in the fresh air around him, in the silly hope that the sudden supply of oxygen would somehow reverse his ageing.

He sat there on that park bench for quite some time, his forlorn figure hunched and bent. The NMN he was taking and before them, the NAD+ tablets for some two years, seemed a con to him suddenly. To his mind, he had been enjoying a new spring in his steps, a fresh sense of frolicking in his demeanour, maybe even a childlike inquisitive attitude towards life. He had taken comfort in a passage he read in a quote by Marcus Aurelius in recent days, about digging deep within ourselves and we would find the good news, the good things, all the goodness we seek – in ourselves. The other daily reminder for himself was about the buddhist way of life – acceptance and contentment. In Stoicism, they talk about ‘the art of acquiescence’ – to accept rather than fight over every little thing. He sighed loudly, frustrated suddenly at all the buzz words he had accumulated in search of wisdom. Words that make most things sound easy to do, such as acceptance to find contentment and happiness. Happiness…. he sighed again. Even the Americans who were masters of slaves and therefore enjoyed immense wealth from the free labour they secured for almost 250 years still needed to pursue happiness and felt the need to include that pursuit in their Declaration of Independence.

Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?

Epictetus, Discourses,, 1.6.1-2

“Ok, what good news did you want to share?” I asked the old man, as he sipped the freshly brewed coffee I had made for him. He is quite strange, I thought to myself. Black coffee in the morning, white coffee in the afternoon. He read my mind somehow. “That’s because I fast till quite late, no milk in the morning does not mean no milk today,” he said, almost sternly. He and I go back a long time, so he is less civil with me. A strange human trait. Somehow, we are less kind to the people closest to us. In our many long conversations, I know for a fact the old man’s injuries to his spirit were mostly self-inflicted but sometimes the knock-out blows came from the inner-circle of family and friends. We do not wrap one another in cocoons but why can’t we give each other the best down jacket to keep warm? What’s the use of the best down in the wet? “All you’ll get is a smelly jacket,” the old man said, proving that old men are grumpy.

Good news should be shared. Any good news, however big or small, should be celebrated. That has always been the old man’s way, especially now that those around him are really old or getting old. The old man was the first person to find out his Mrs was pregnant. That day seemed like an eternity ago. They were in their small 65 sq. ft. flat in Coogee which they called “an apartment” in those days to make it sound bigger and more expensive. His Mrs had transformed into a ravenous woman, always hungry and on the hunt for all sorts of meats and sausages, suddenly despising her favourite snack such as finger buns topped with hundreds and thousands, and often displaying a lethargy in her office at the OPSM Head Office in Sydney’s banking precinct. One night she insisted on Cantonese roast duck after dinner. “But, we just had dinner,” the old man said. The Mrs insisted and that was final. By the time he came home almost an hour later with a succulent freshly roasted duck from Chinatown, she had lost her craving.

“That’s not the duck I saw in my mind, this one uses colouring,” she complained.

“I was 23 and I realised it was impossible to understand women,” he said.

When she complained to the old tea lady that she was forever hungry, the rotund woman, who spent much of her time knitting at the kitchen table of the office when her chores were done, secretly gave her an extra piece of Arnott’s Lemon Crisp or Scotch Finger. “You’re with child, luv,” she said to the Mrs, offering not just the biscuits but also a kind grandmotherly smile. When Saturday arrived, the Mrs instructed the old man to go to the Randwick chemist for advice. The old man was reluctant. His reluctance was reminiscent of the same reluctance he showed a few months earlier when asked to walk into the chemist to buy his first pack of condoms. “Nah, we don’t need them,” he said at the time. His nonchalance at ‘protection measures’ wasn’t to say that sex wasn’t on his mind; his raging hormones insisted on frequent sex, but even in those early days, frequency of sex was not a dictate that he could impose on her. “You’re such a coward,” she snarled and gave him a cold scowl, her eyebrows knitted together and corners of her mouth drooped with displeasure. He waited in the car as she rushed into the shop after having pulled down her summer hat to either hide her face or hide it from the sun. She came back to the car with a paper bag containing her “protection”.

“Show you’re responsible,” she said to him but he would not budge. As she was unlocking her seat belt, he said, “You should complain to the chemist that the pills didn’t work!” “That is why you’re buying the test kit.” “Ask for a refund or at least a discount.” She came back with a paper bag containing their first pregnancy test kit. “Did you get a discount?” he asked. She said nothing but fumed all the way back to Coogee. The test was easy to do, simply add urine and wait for the chemicals to react. They were chatting in the kitchen whilst the Mrs was preparing a late lunch. Never a spendthrift, she would never entertain the idea of ordering coffee outside or agree to eat out at a restaurant. Thirsty? Just wait. We will be home soon, why pay for water? Coffee? Coffee? Silence. Silence never meant agreement, silence equals ‘NO’, that much he learnt from many lessons in bed. Suddenly, he yelped out. “Oh! The test result!” It was as if someone had clashed cymbals in his head repeatedly and violently. He had rushed into their bedroom to look at the test kit but when he reappeared in the kitchen, he was dragging his feet as if chained to a tonne of iron ball. His Mrs looked at him and did not have to ask. His ashen face said it all. He was still in shock or in a daze, he did not tell me. But, he looked completely wrecked. As if life had not yet really begun, yet life had already changed and the life that he had imagined had already ended. He hugged his wife and they both cried. So, he was the first to know about her pregnancy. (The tea lady didn’t know, she guessed right).

“I was the first to know about my niece’s pregnancy too,” the old man said. “That can’t be, surely,” I said. “Of course she and her hubby knew first, but apart from them, I was the first one to know,” he said confidently. Somehow, he felt special. As special as being the first person to know about his Mrs was with child. Bringing life into the world, that has to be the most amazing thing in life to do or witness. For most, it is a symbol of their love, a wanted result of their love-making, bringing a baby who equally represents the very essence of who they are, their DNA.

At the restaurant they were dining to celebrate his 64th birthday for the tenth time, the old man noticed the empty glass across the table from him. In fact, there were two empty wine glasses. He raised himself somewhat awkwardly from his seat – ageing does that to us, I had agreed with him just a few days earlier that we become not just slower but also clumsier in our slowness – and offered to top up the glass that his niece’s hubby had drunk from. Hers was empty, and although the old man was surprised she had declined the red wine, he did not insist on pouring her some, as he would often do with others. “C’mon, just a little, so we can clink our glasses for good luck,” he would often say. As he reached to pour the wine for her hubby, she said she didn’t want any. “I know, you said that before,” he replied and looked at her. He was struck by her radiance. He had known how beautiful she was even in her teens, but the radiance, her aura or glow, was captivating. He smiled at his favourite niece (but he tells all his nieces they are his favourites) before saying the wine was meant for her husband’s glass. “I have a reason for not wanting wine,” she said, smiling coyly with her big round eyes. Her lips curled upwards and made a sweet smile.

“I know,” the old man said. “You are pregnant!” he said, without guessing.

“How did you know?” she said, this time her eyes opened wider in amazement.

“I just know,” he said, unconvincingly.

The rest of the party somehow did not notice their exchange. She looked unsure about whether to repeat her major announcement to everyone at the table. The old man felt that awesome feeling of happiness. At that moment, he knew there was never any need to pursue happiness. Happiness just comes. It just happens. He felt the dizzying heights of elation and joy. Bursting with a foreign exhilarating and heartwarming felicity, he nudged at the chap sitting next to him to get his attention. The chap was busy in conversation with his wife on his right. “What?” he asked in a Malaysian accent that was vanishing quickly after having spent almost two months here.

“Your daughter is pregnant!” the old man almost shouted, trying to talk over the din in the room.

“What?” the chap asked again, proving that his hearing was defective.

“I said your girl is pregnant!”

“She’s pregnant? hahahahaha, she is pregnant!” the chap turned to his wife and shouted jubilantly.

“Our daughter is pregnant!” he exclaimed in a booming voice.

The Empress Chinese Restaurant got a lot louder after that. Everyone at the table behaved as if they were the only ones dining there. More rounds of clinking wine glasses followed. The pregnant niece’s still contained water. She would not be able to steal a sip of wine for the next little while, I bet. After another toast, the old man left the dinner party hurriedly for his orchestra rehearsal.

Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau

More At Sixty-Four

The old man was out celebrating last night. He told me at sixty-four, he is celebrating life every day. “Any excuse will do,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Despite the obvious decline in his appearance, he was behaving quite childishly at the end of his dinner party at Himeji in Grote Street, just a stone’s throw from Adelaide Chinatown’s two large pailou, the very traditional-looking Chinese arch gateway. He rested his head on both hands, each hand holding each side of his face to pose for a birthday photo. In his mind he might have thought he looked cute or cheeky, purposefully tilting his head slightly to the right to mimic his natural pose as seen in his childhood photos. He didn’t care if his Mrs thought he was acting childish again. “Act your age,” she would often say to him. He told me he had never been sixty-four and therefore should be excused for not knowing how he should behave at sixty-four. But, when I showed him the photo, his face winced as if he had cut his foot open.

He later told me that was exactly what happened to him when he ventured to the edge of the raging brown river some ten yards from the rear boundary of his childhood home at 10 Scotland Close, Penang. He was maybe eight or nine years old at the time. Stretching himself to the maximum height on his toes next to the fenced yard where the chicken coop stood at the furthest corner of his back garden, he could see a dead animal’s carcass slowly floating downstream towards his direction, and against his common sense, he quickly made his way down the gentle slope to the river bank about four feet below where he stood to take a closer look. The fence was incomplete for some unknown reason. The small gap between the fence and the ground was enough for a small boy to crawl through. A few weeks later, a massive python would find its way through the same gap and feast on one or perhaps two of the chooks. The bright yellow sulphur that his dad spread along the perimeter of the chook fence obviously didn’t work. The river bank was a stretch of public land that was unattended, unmanaged and therefore unused. A riverfront house should be highly prized, offering great feng shui with the moving water of the river giving “chi” – the life force energy further enhanced by the nearby giant stands of bamboo dancing in the wind. No matter what manic force a storm threw at them, no matter how frightening the sounds of wailing, swishing and creaking bamboo were to the young boy, he never witnessed any bamboo crashing down from their lofty heights. “Well, they are a grass specie, no wind can blow grass down, right?” the old man said, momentarily bringing me back to the present. He gulped down another cup of sake before leaning away from me. He was still telling me his story but I could feel he had already left the room. His voice sounded near as he spoke but his mind seemed somewhere else. The bamboo looked majestic at over fifty feet tall and stood proudly together providing shade and protection as a windbreak. But, often when the sun set and the angry winds and black clouds arrived, they turned manic and scary like monsters in the dark, screeching and wailing at the wind, fighting the storm with their flailing thin frames and wild erratic movements.

As the little boy walked closer to the edge of the foul-smelling water, he became afraid and wished he had not venture out of his sanctuary. The lalang was still as if waiting to pounce and cut him with their super sharp edges. The boy had learned years earlier that lalang can be as sharp as knives, having sliced his thumb whilst playing with a blade of the grass. The air was heavy and humid, the boy’s effort to get there had made a dark damp patch on the back of his blue t-shirt. He had never wandered beyond their backyard before. Brought up to only know cleanliness, this unkempt zone was foreign to him. Overgrown lalang hid an old path from view – suddenly he thought they could also hide snakes and wild animals too. There were all sorts of rubbish being strewn along that stretch of land. Plastic bags still clean and bright in their pink and white indicated they were recently rendered as rubbish. Those soiled and wet showed their age. Behind the neighbour’s boundary, a pile of garden refuse stank, attracting a horde of busy flies. The odoriferous water’s edge almost made the boy turn back but he took one step too many and his thongs got stuck in the mud. Unknowingly, the next step he took with his right foot was without his slipper. That was never found, buried in the mud forever. It was during the month of the Hungry Ghosts, and therefore unsurprisingly, he stepped right onto a sharp piece of brown glass which was likely part of a beer bottle. What did the little boy get from an open wound, lots of blood spurting out of his big toe, muddy conditions and dirty river water? Red iodine and pus somehow was the usual combination of things to expect when the hungry ghosts appear every July.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “That!” he said, pointing to the photo of him trying to be cute. “I look so old!” He does look old, I thought to myself. His hair, as a friend said this morning, is long and unkempt. Dry, unwashed and grey. His mop of hair now sparse and unable to hide parts of his scalp, only reinforces the notion that his advancing years have gathered pace as each week passes. Half his eyebrows are disappearing, the long ends that swept upwards at a sharp slant have faded away, making him look much less angry and less fierce. More comical in fact. His new round frames, although still currently fashionable, somehow look clownish on him. The smile his upward-curving lips formed looks forced and out-of-place on his face. His thin arms are incongruous with the army-like camouflage colours on his sleeves. His biceps have shrunk until his arms look straight and pencil-thin. “Hey, you’re sixty-four, it’s ok to look old,” I said, but my attempt to comfort him only made him look sad.

Wagyu Robata was so good we ordered another serve.

“Anyway, the food tonight is so good,” I said like a good guest should. “It is my first time at the Himeji and I must say I have changed my mind about Japanese food,” he replied, showing his utter ignorance of what fine cuisine is. “Japanese food involves minimal cooking,” he continued, totally unaware that he was sounding more and more idiotic. He said ‘minimal cooking’ but in his heart I think he meant ‘very little cooking skill’. “It’s just knife skills or eating raw food!” he said softly, confirming my suspicion that he thought little of Japanese culinary skills. Another guest overheard our conversation and told him Japanese food is not just about taste and smell, but it’s also an art in many respects. The arrangement of Japanese food is also a feast for the eyes. Shapes, colours, sizes are thoughtfully put together and also complement the vessels and utensils in one’s hands. Touch and feel is also part of the dining experience. The five colours that are prevalent in Japanese food are white, black, red, green and yellow – apparently a tradition carried down since the arrival of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. There are also the five ways of preparing food – raw, simmered, fried, steamed, roasted or grilled. Not to be outdone by the guest, I quickly added, “And of course, Japanese food is famous for its fifth taste. Apart from sweet, sour, salty or bitter, they have umami.”

Flamed charcoal unagi, the old man’s favourite

“Let’s order more,” the old man said, visibly enjoying the Japanese meal. Most of his guests had already said they were full a couple of courses earlier, but he would not have it. “I’m sixty-four, let’s have more!” he shouted, over the din in the room. The fifth sense in Japanese food is often lost in western societies. The Japanese normally enjoy their meal in a quiet atmosphere, to focus on the food and also to show reverence to the chef. But, Himeji was a rowdy place. Aussies are loud when they are happy. “That’s ok, the more they laugh, the more I’ll shout,” the old man said before he too guffawed at his own remark. I think it may have been the Masumi sake he downed with too much exuberance earlier on.

The old man eighth 64th birthday celebration at the Himeji 21/10/2022.

“Any more parties planned?” I asked. I had lost count of the number of celebrations he had in the past two weeks. “Tonight’s party is the eighth celebration of my 64th birthday party,” the old man said. I almost did not recognise his voice, such was the sweet tenderness used in it. His face lit up with a certain smugness – a misplaced sadism – delighted at the envy of a friend who mentioned in passing that “some of us” were not in touch with the economic hardships being felt by many around the world, ‘what with the war in Europe and broken monetary system bearing down hard on financial markets and bond markets everywhere’. “Oh, I missed your sixth and seventh parties,” I said, implying that I had not made it to his invitation list. “Oh, weren’t you invited?” he asked. “I thought you were there,” he added.

His sixth party was prepared by the Thai Youtuber he befriended recently. She cooked him a special Thai meal. “A meal cooked by a celebrity!” he exclaimed. The ‘Balitong’ curry was a first for him and it sparked a memory of a time in 1969 when Balitong or Mud Creeper was a must on Friday nights with his best friend at the time. The friend was learning nunchucks at the time, the nunchaku being a weapon introduced to most of us on the big screen by Bruce Lee.

Thai Balitong Curry
Tom Yum Talay, a must for any Thai dinner. The old man’s sixth 64th birthday celebration.

His seventh party for this year’s birthday was at the Saray Kebab House, an Iraqi joint serving Turkish food. When they got there, the owner of the restaurant was deep in conversation with a friend, one was drinking Turkish coffee, the other Turkish tea. “So, we ordered the same to start with,” the old man told me. The coffee was too strong for his Mrs, so she was given extra pieces of Turkish delight. Later, they brought her a cup of cappuccino, ‘on the house’. A mixed grill kebab dish had so much meat in it that three people and a dog could not finish it. Yeah, apparently they brought Murray along, but having missed out, I did not ask if indeed it was Murray that got to go to his party.

Charcoal grill mix, yiros with salad, rice and two dips!

As we bade goodnight to one another, the old man pulled me to one side. “Thanks for sticking by me through thick and thin,” he said. I had not realised he saw me as a pillar of strength that he leaned on from time to time. I saw my own reflection in the window opposite where I was sitting and gave the old man a smile. “No worries,” I said. He ought to know I am always there for him.

Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.59

Anymore At Sixty-Four?

The old man decided to literally let his hair down the other day. I envied his mane, actually. It was a symbol of his power, his independence, if you like. His Mrs had long discouraged him to keep his hair long. As a kid, his school teachers forced students to keep their hair above the collar – any transgression would be met with a swift lashing by a rattan cane. As a working adult in late 20th century Australia, the prevailing dress codes in the workplace reflected strict attitudes to “proper and professional” work attire and hairstyles. After being his own boss for many years, he didn’t care anymore. When he turned sixty, he turned resolute in wanting it his own way; after all, it was his own hair, his own appearance, his own entitlement to simply do nothing. Would he care anymore, at sixty-four? His respect for Confucius extended to the teaching that we inherit our hair from our ancestors and ought to keep them intact. Keeping his hair long and unkempt drew ire and even attracted criticisms from certain quarters.

“Your hair keeps stopping the robot vacuum cleaner,” his Mrs complained regularly.

“You look like a beggar,” a sibling said.

“Too long lah,” Chip, an old friend commented, about his hair, unaware that it could have been mistaken as an appraisal of the old man’s appendage.

Hair loss was becoming a problem for him and he feared his receding hairline would force him to keep the queue hairstyle mostly associated with Manchu subjugation of men during the Qing rule. It would be a devastating irony for the old man if his defiance in keeping his hair long ended up with him owning a bald scalp at the front of his head and a long plaited tail at the back. “Lose your hair or lose your head” was a Manchu policy to force the men to be openly submissive.

He had been observing the behaviour of the younger generation. A year ago, one of his sons celebrated his birthday with various groups of friends and colleagues over many weeks. Each celebration was with different people, at a different venue with different types of food. “I lost count after his seventh party,” the old man said. To celebrate his 64th birthday, the old man decided to follow his son’s example. “Throw many parties!” he said excitedly. At last count, he has sent me photos of five birthday parties. So I asked him, “Anymore celebrations this weekend?” He winked and said nothing.

The old man’s first birthday celebration this year was at the Empress Restaurant. “I leave it up to you,” he said to his restauranteur friend, Daniel Wong. “Omakase, terima kaseh,” he said, but Daniel although of Malaysian heritage, did not understand the Malay words. “Thank you!” the old man repeated in English. The old man’s Mrs wanted to know what was planned for the menu and the more she asked, the more adamant he refused to reveal. “It is omakase,” he repeated for the umpteenth time. “I left it to him,” he said calmly whilst mentally pulling his hair out.

A lobster never fails to make an appearance in the old man’s parties.

I was invited to his second party. He was considerate enough to hold it outdoors at the Ballaboosta in Burnside. The Ballaboosta served a mix of Lebanese, Middle Eastern / Mediterranean foods. The old man loved their mezze bread and wood-fired pizzas. Dessert was a serve of Knafeh, without fail. So, I asked him if I could bring a friend. “Sure, why not?” he said. “Can I bring Murray?” I asked. Murray is my son’s dog, although I firmly believe Murray believes he is my dog. Murray fully understands me, in three languages – body, English and Chinese. If I flinched, he would wake up. If I farted, he would jump off my lap. If I asked him “還要? Want some more?” he would nod his head. “I am about to book a table for us, anymore friends you want to join us?” the old man asked.

Murray and I at the old man’s second 64th birthday party.

Not to be outdone by his son’s birthday splurge last year, the old man invited me again to another birthday party a couple of days ago. His love for Italian food was triggered a long time ago when he befriended the Scalzi’s. His Mrs and Anne Scalzi introduced each other at the kindergarten where their firstborn sons met and cemented a friendship that still remain strong. The Scalzi’s introduced home-made Italian tomato sauce and pork sausages to the old man and his Mrs. During those early days, the Scalzi’s gathered together weekly as a big Italian family and not only partook in the feasts that Mama Caterina was famous for but also helped her prepare and bottle her famed tomato sauce. Riposi in Pace, Caterina.

At the Gradi 400 in Norwood, attending the old man’s third 64th birthday party.

They were back for lunch at the Empress Restaurant to celebrate the old man’s birthday a couple of days ago. Just to keep count, that was his fourth 64th birthday party! Daniel Wong had just got back from his short holiday in Melbourne. Yumcha in his restaurant was always good and to my amazement, he suggested that we try the Secret Kitchen next time we were in Melbourne. They were voted best Dim Sim restaurant in Melbourne.

Empress Restaurant’s Daniel Wong and a bulldog, Oct 2022.

Last night, they were out partying again. Again, the old man showed his predisposition for Italian food. They went to Enzo’s Ristorante, a multi-award winner in Adelaide famed for their traditional Italian cuisine so much so that they were awarded the Ospitalita Italiana accreditation by the Italian government. The food was great as was the company of the party-goers. I eyed with envy at the old man’s dish Lonza di Bue, a 200-day aged Angus porterhouse steak that was served either medium or medium-rare. “I could have it rare,” said the old man, noticing that his steak did not ooze blood at all. One of the guests requested for hers to be well-done only for her order to be declined by the chef!

Misto di Mare Alla Griglia, chargrilled South Australian seafood platter served at the old man’s fifth 64th birthday party.

Whilst waiting for desserts, the carefree conversation somehow descended into politics. The old man clearly had too much of the Ashton Hill Pinot Noir. He normally limited himself to South Australia’s best Shiraz and Cab Sav’s, finding that the pinot noirs were too ‘watery’ for his liking. Stung by a son’s jest about the Shiraz here being so heavy and thick that one could paint a house with them, he decided to open his mind and try the wine from Piccadilly Valley. Initially, he regretted his suggestion for his Mrs’ sister to select the wine. “Why don’t you explore the wine list yourself?” he said in reply to her invitation for him to pick a Shiraz. The Mrs’ sister was seated next to a celebrity Youtuber who had made a name for herself as a Thai educator in Adelaide. Youtubers normally are preoccupied with monetising their channel but the slim and olive-skinned lady came across as a virtuous person whose aim was to help her community in a foreign land. She sat across the table from me and I could see that anyone who wanted to keep their hair long should have hair that was lustrous, shiny and luscious. I decided to find an appropriate time to tell the old man what I thought of his dry and sparse hoary hair. “Cut it short!” I said to myself without hesitation.

The old man’s Mrs brought up something he had espoused ages ago, the idea that democracies in the modern world no longer work. Someone had mentioned the upcoming snap election in Malaysia after the sudden dissolution of the Parliament by the PM who in doing so, consigned himself to become the shortest serving PM in Malaysian history. What a fool, the old man thought to himself. His belief that his people need not know how to speak English was further testament to his stupidity. The old man stopped talking to himself when his Mrs repeated her question, the second time with much more vigour in her voice. “So, if democracies don’t work, what should replace them?” she asked. She was baiting him to see if he dared suggest that a centralised governing system was more efficient and effective in getting missions completed and goals met. He admired how China had eradicated extreme poverty in just four decades. How the centralised economy had outperformed capitalism at a rapid rate. How China had surpassed the US to become the world’s largest economy (certainly by purchasing power parity). How China had become the world’s factory and primary patent maker. How China’s modernisation of its infrastructure had shamed countries such as the US. “SUCH A LONG LIST!” the old man’s Mrs interrupted him. “Anymore?” she asked. He belatedly knew his lips had been loosened by the Pinot Noir and quickly zip-tied it and shrank back to his seat.

Well.. look at a democracy like Malaysia. Is it helping the people? Are they better off compared with China? The democratic system stubbornly keeps electing kleptocrats. Why is that? Why would the majority of the people keep voting the crooks in? Why does the social contract between the voters and their government not produce a favourable outcome for the people? The common people, if uneducated and uncaring about politics and the health of their own economy, can be easily bribed. Was it not the case that they voted for politicians who gave them just a few hundred dollars and a red t-shirt?

Look at the US, so-called hero of democracy and freedom in the world. Is it not true that its democracy is also termed a ‘donorcracy’ in which the political system is weighted in favour of lobby groups with the biggest donations? How is it possible that the world’s most powerful nation with over 330 million people can vote in a serial-liar Trump and a senile Biden in their last two elections? In the past three years, the Fed had printed eight trillion dollars, and since February 2022, the US had sent billions of dollars to Ukraine to fund their proxy war against Russia whilst many Americans continued to live in squalor and the country was in dire need of modern infrastructure? Is this not irrefutable proof that a democracy is merely a romantic idea of how a majority rule in a society that respects all its peoples’ wishes and freedom should improve the lives of the majority of the people?

The old man’s Mrs relaxed her mood after being sweetened by the Tiramisu she indulged in. “Ok, please continue,” she said, using her elbow to nudge at him.

The old man began. I have summarised it the best I can below.

Basically, there are three forms of government.

  1. By the one.
  2. By the few.
  3. By the many.

Each has a good side and a bad side, just like a coin.

A system ruled ‘By the One’ is a monarchy, but the bad side is a tyranny. 

The good side of “By the Few’ is aristocracy, the bad side is oligarchy. 

If ruled ‘By the Many’ we get a republic, but the bad side is ochlocracy or mob rule. Plato in 330 BC wrote in his ‘Republic’ that mob rule in a democracy could be the consequence of populism in a political or social system. In recent years, we have witnessed time and again populist leaders who find ways and means to increase their unchecked powers to deliver their promises to the mobs who voted them in, often at the expense of minorities and perceived opponents. Who can forget the mob advancing on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021 in its failed attempt to re-install their leader who had clearly lost the election? The will of the majority is not necessarily for the common good.

Look at Russia’s toppling of the Czar when they stormed the Winter Palace. The result of their popular uprising saw the country changing from a monarchy to an autocracy. All the group of angry people needed was a charismatic leader such as Lenin who was able to stir the mob and kick out Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the provisional government. 

In the roaring twenties, many countries experienced loose monetary policies implemented by their governments during and after WW1. War efforts needed money desperately, and it took the printing press to simply print more. Every nation that went to war had the idea that victors would reap the bounty from the vanquished and Germany was the big loser. The Treaty of Versailles was another hammer in the nail for the German economy; it imposed vast reparations to France and Great Britain, and annexed much sought-after land and key ports to the winners. Soldiers returned from the war and joined the long queues of unemployed labour. Hyperinflation followed soon after with too much money chasing too few goods. As in Russia, it was mob rule that installed a tyrant in the name of Hitler as the supreme leader in post-war Germany. People were angered by the Weimer Republic‘s poor governance of the State that oversaw the hyperinflation in the economy and allowed rule by decree and suspension of constitutional rights in a national democracy.

Does this not sound familiar during the recent years of the latest pandemic? The imposition of draconian laws that barred the freedom of movement and gatherings during long spells of lock-downs and the discriminatory laws that took away peoples’ jobs (means of livelihood) for those unvaccinated or unmasked. Today, record 40-year high inflation across the globe and the devaluation of most currencies against commodities and the USD are also reminiscent of the Great Depression following the extravagances of the roaring twenties.  

Is majority rule really for the common good? People’s Power sounds like a great thing. After Benigno Aquino’s assasination, the people took to the streets in what was known as the ‘Yellow Revolution’ using yellow ribbons to depose Ferdinand Marcos from the presidency. But, the energy of mobs can fizzle out quickly. Mobs can be crushed by a strongman, as proven by all dictatorships or they can simply lose interest in politics especially if their primary focus is to make ends meet and lessen their misery. Thirty six years later, the Filipinos voted in the son of the man they ousted as President. Ferdinand Marcos Jr can thank his mob for their short memory span.

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

Thomas Jefferson

A good start is to ask the question, ‘Is it for the common good?” But, who can decide what is good for the common people? Who should decide? 

  1. A monarch? A dictator?
  2. The mega wealthy such as those billionaires who are members of the World Economic Forum?
  3. The everyday Joe Blows from Kokomo? The ordinary working class people and the mum-and-dad business owners?  Those disinterested, too busy trying to make a living, or uneducated to care?

“So, what is your solution?” the old man’s Mrs asked, tiring of his long-windedness. The old man looked up and she could tell his mind was racing at almost the speed of light. He did not want to look stupid or sound idiotic in not coming up with a plausible solution after sharing his lengthy views above. At the same time, he did not wish to embarrass himself with an off-the-cuff suggestion.

“Well, don’t you have anymore to say?” she asked in a challenging tone.

The old man’s reply would not be accepted in today’s woke culture. Any suggestion of depriving any group or class of people will be shot down and the proponent cancelled in a public outcry. Yet, he spoke his mind and foolishly (in my opinion) revealed his thoughts to the party revellers.

“I think with any system, there has to be compromises. There are great features in a centralised system of governance such as China’s mixture of state capitalism and collective enterprise. Every system including the most capitalistic ones such as America also adopts a great deal of centralised control. The most important power in any nation is the control of money and that power resides not with the elected governments but with a small group of private banks, named as The Federal Central Bank (Fed), a misnomer since the federal reserve system is governed by seven officers of private banks. In truth, the Fed controls the US, since they control the monetary system there, and since the US Dollar is the reserve currency of the world, the Fed controls the world to some extent.

“Who controls money controls the world.”

Henry Kissinger

So, my solution is this. I still believe in a democracy but a democracy that is elected by the top one hundred people in every field nominated by the people, be it medicine, music, arts, sports, political science, social science, education, et cetera, et cetera. These experts who belong to the top echelon of their fields then have to familiarise themselves with the political parties’ policies since they have the responsibility to vote in those candidates who wish to participate in the electoral process. This is a better system than the Westminster system in which the leader of the government can be deposed by a member of his or her own party; the sacking of the national leader may not be the wish of the people.

“That will never be allowed to work though,” said the old man. “People will be mistaken to think this process is elitist,” he said.

“Then, what’s the point of even suggesting this?” his Mrs said. “Anymore bright ideas?” she asked dryly.

With that last remark, the party ended.

To The Fore When I’m Sixty-Four

In a few more days, the old man will turn 64. Crikey. Has it been so long since he first sang the Beatles song? He was a teenager then, with so much promise and seemingly limitless potential. He had a thick mop of hair, so stiff and thick they felt more wiry than hairy. No designer style yet it looked decidedly designed in the shape of a coconut. His flatmates took turns to cut it for him. Free labour did not mean labour freely given. His lack of concern about hygiene and looks showed in his face. It was messed up with active pimples that were prone to explode more randomly after greasy or spicy meals. Still, he didn’t care, since he didn’t notice them. Scrawny and bespectacled, he moved like a shadow, following his friend’s moves. They attended uni classes together. They rushed to the library together to secure the books mentioned by their lecturer. They went to the shops together to do their weekly shopping. Did I say ‘together’? Not quite, he was often a step or two behind, just like a shadow. His friend came from a well-to-do family, the father a doctor and the mum a headmistress. Those with a better background tended to start off in life more confident, more comfortable and definitely with more freedom. He was however, a son of a dhobi, not from the lower caste like the Indian laundryman but nevertheless he considered his father was a working-class man. He was wrong about his circumstances – it wasn’t that he was out of touch with reality, his reality was quite spartan and dire. He never had enough to eat – his mother made sure that they lived a rather thrifty lifestyle so that they would not grow up ‘wasting’ money. Every morsel of food was small and inadequate, everything had to be sliced to thin slivers to be shared by many siblings. In uni, he worked three shifts a week in a Chinese restaurant and if he did not go back home to visit his family during the summer vacations, he would find full-time work in a factory or warehouse. In fact, as soon as he arrived in Australia, he found work as a drinks waiter. That first moment of financial independence thrilled him as the pay was enough to cover his food and lodgings. It took him just a few more weeks to save enough to send home some money to his best friend whom he asked to arrange a meal for the gang of about ten school friends he left behind in Penang. It was enough to buy them a good lunch at the Eden, an outlet that served western food. Strangely, only one of the friends wrote to thank him for lunch, but he did not think much of the oddity back then. Such matters did not dwell in his mind, he was simply happy to see a photo of them enjoying a meal together. He was accustomed to being in the background or backstage. Giving speeches and barking instructions in the class was as foreign to him as eating gorgonzola or as impossible as swimming in the desert.

The two friends were so often seen together that the richer one became known as Fat Shadow and the other, Thin Shadow. No one ever asked who’s who, the answer was as clear as night and day. Both of them loved to sing love songs. The old man’s favourite was ‘My Way’ deciding that the words meant something to him, and that he would grow up to live life his way. They sang ‘When I am sixty-four’ often too, not appreciating that life would hurtle so fast that their sixty-fourth birthdays would arrive in the blink of an eye. Fat Shadow was the more outgoing of the two, therefore the more visible and louder. Thin Shadow packed his own lunch and was never seen in the uni cafeteria. His lunch was predictable. IXL’s strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwich. It mattered not if it was spring or autumn.

Three years passed by and uni days ended. The two friends grew apart and without a goodbye, they went their separate way. Thin Shadow stayed on in Australia. Later, he heard Fat Shadow had made his way to Singapore and established a career there. Life’s cycle was pretty much the same for the friends. “You fall in love and marry the girl in your dream,” he said. “Then, you wake up and realise the dream was better and you were a better person there.” Their kids came soon after and life as they knew it ceased forever. “It was about me initially, then ‘us’ for a short while and then ‘them’ very quickly and for a long time after that.” “It became always about them,” he said, finally understanding the gravity of parenthood once he worked out the monthly pay cheque he earned was just enough to cover their living expenses. “We lived and breathed raising our children, and gave them the best opportunities we could muster,” he said.

Happy union with wife and children is like the music of lutes and harps.

Confucius, Book of Poetry

“But, aren’t Confucian teachings about children showing respect and being filial to their parents?” I asked, sensing that he gave much more than he expected to receive.

“It is also true that they didn’t ask to be born and weren’t given a choice,” he said, justifying their belief that they therefore were obligated to take care of them the best way possible.

The old man’s kids left home early. It didn’t seem so long ago that his eldest son was a sweet little boy, no more than three and a half years old. With a chubby face packed full like a big round pork bun, his aunty (伯母 – bó mǔ ) called him Bak-pao-bin or ‘pork bun face’. The toddler was well brought up and was the epitome of a Confucian son. In a restaurant, he would keep to his seat and not run around like a headless chook. With a meticulous habit of not leaving any crumbs at the table, he was distressed when the French waiter kept saying “merci, merci’ to them at the end of the evening. “Mummy, I am not messy,” said the child who was about to break into tears.

An empty nester at the age of 45, the old man was struck by the brevity of their happy times together as a family. Hedonistic as a teenager and as a young man, he was suddenly wrecked emotionally by the sudden emptiness that engulfed him. The music and laughter that permeated the walls of their home evaporated into the air, as if a storm had lashed down on the world and frightened away all the birds and butterflies in the park. Their bluestone Federation-style house, emptied of children, looked abandoned and sinister in the distance. He was traipsing aimlessly on the park across the road when his resolute composure gave way. Feeling weak, he lowered himself to sit on the ground but ended up squatting when he discovered it was soggy and cold. His thoughts turned epicurean, preferring the avoidance of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul rather than seeking pleasure. He raised himself up and felt like a new dawn had arrived. He was ready for the next chapter in his life.

For the next fifteen years, he worked hard in his business and tried to build a retail ’empire’, a goal that he failed to fulfil. At the end of this period of high risks and torturous toil, his plan collapsed in ruins amid the global financial contagion that spread from America. He was not awoken by Elton John’s song about the candle in the wind at Princess Diana’s funeral. He failed to recognise that life is fragile and tomorrow is not promised. Today is the present, literally a gift that should not be taken for granted. But, in recent years, it was the pandemic that stopped him in his tracks and made him reconsider the meaning of life. He was attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s leanings to nihilism, a theory that life has no intrinsic meaning and humans have no real purpose. Growing up in a ‘Buddhist’ environment, he had already been exposed to the idea that we ought to tame our desires to reduce suffering, a concept not dis-similar to passive nihilism, or a will to nothingness. However, Nietzsche’s Existential nihilism gave us the way to create our own personal subjective meaning through a combination of free will and awareness of becoming what he called a ‘Higher Man’, a better version of ourselves.

In recent years, his answer to rapid hair-loss was to wash his hair infrequently. This was after discovering a clump of hair trapped on the drain hole cover of their shower cubicle. His normally stolid face winced, aghast at the loss, now held gingerly in his fingers. Despite his Mrs’ incessant nagging about his foul-smelling pillows and the ever-increasing need to free-up the robot’s vacuum main brush from the entanglement of long hair, the ownership of said hair was without dispute since hers was cut, like a bob, he persisted in keeping them unwashed for days. Soon after, he was washing his hair once weekly, believing that his receding hairline would be stemmed. His doctor was on a long vacation leave and he had no one to discuss the merits of taking Finasteride to further combat the loss of hair. “It’s important not to be impotent,” he said to me, after learning that a side effect might be a loss in his libido. I felt like telling him about the many benefits of being celibate and many in fact, celebrate the freedom of having no interest in sex. But, he looked like he was in no mood to listen to me, so I simply walked away.

After much coaxing from his nieces, the old man finally summoned enough courage and stood up from the shadows at the back of the hall where the Burnside Symphony Orchestra held their practice sessions every Tuesday night. He stepped into the fore a few days short of his sixty-fourth birthday and introduced himself to the concertmaster. She welcomed him to join them in the First Violin section but he said he was happy to start at the very back of the Second Violins. Two hours later, he emerged a rejuvenated man who seemingly had multiple shots of happy hormones racing through his body that night, thrilled with the music-making and friendships made, savouring a blissful happiness reminiscent of the fun nights he enjoyed as a 15-year-old student in the Penang Orchestra. “Now I have a lot to look forward to when I am sixty-four,” he said.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair

Many fears from now

Will I still be standing on my pedestal

Heyday, meetings, own a gold mine?

If I’d been a flop, work till sixty three

Would you lock the door

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Our kids will be older too

And if they say they were hurt

That I betrayed you

Could they be happy, ending abuse

When our fights forgone

You can sit with a dreamer by the fireside

Chilly mornings on the way to Ryde

Nothing’s forbidden, smokin’ the weed

Amore or amour

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Every summer visit the Hermitage in St Petersburg

There’s nothing to fear

There is talk of war

Putin going nuclear

A lunatic’s rave

Dead men on a cart, NATO aligned

Putin’s point of view

Predicate precisely what the US say

Sanctioned dearly, wasting away

Not an inch eastward, yet there they are

Hermits evermore

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Lyrics by Wu Yonggang, tune by Lennon-McCarthy
With members of Burnside Symphony Orchestra in Oct 2022

Learn From The Learned

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” Edgar Khoo said. The old man misheard him, as he was prone to do of late. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose was what played in his mind. It was a long time ago that they were taught that mistakes were good, for it was through a mistake that we learnt right from wrong and when we fail or lose, we learn not to make the same mistake again. “Learning is therefore winning, no?” the old man asked Edgar, and without waiting for an answer, he concluded loudly that given that we learn when we lose, we are therefore always winning. His Mrs saw him as a loser, he having lost big time in the sharemarket on two separate occasions, the first time as a promising young man filled with vigour and hope and the second time – the more damaging one to his self-esteem – at the height of his career, he lost almost everything he had accumulated in two decades through blood, sweat and tears. We learn from our mistakes. “Having lost enough times, I have become a learned man,” he said in jest to her as she peered at their bank statement the other day. She did not find anything funny about his sentence. She had got to the letter box before him for once. She never asked to check their bank statements and she never audited his credit card expenses. Even if she did, he would pretend not to hear her. Even if she persisted and demanded to know how their business was faring, he would simply remind her she demanded to be kept out of any aspects of their crumbling business during the greatest crisis they faced in 2009. He had promised her he would not bother her ever again about their ‘stupid business’. He had learnt to be stoic and whenever troubles surfaced, he knew he was on his own. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she wasn’t capable of caring. The traumatic events that led to their financial crisis was beyond their imagination. Sure, his business plans and budgets were often met and even exceeded in the early part of the s-curve of their business but his abacus did not (could not?) account for the force of the contagion that would hit them with such force that it rocked their foundations to the core and questioned their moral compass. ‘Good heart, no reward’ was a Chinese saying that the old man had learnt as a kid whilst watching his father play mahjong with friends in their club. ‘Haoxin meiyu haobao’ 好心没有回报. The wreckage was there for all to see, it was beyond hiding the scars or burying the evidence. He stood in the kitchen, hunched and weak, and lit a joss for his father who had passed away two years earlier. His face contorted into a mangled mess of sadness and pain. His lips quivered and his body trembled – its rhythm wild and random – before collapsing in a heap on the green-jade coloured tiled floor. He picked up the joss which had somehow rested neatly in a grout joint. His mind was too troubled at that point in time to consider how odd that was. Years later, he would ask himself if that was a sign from his departed father. “Lift yourself up from the hole you dug,” he said.

It was a rare occasion His Mrs happened to be enjoying a bit of sun out in the rear garden when she heard the postie ride past on his spluttering motorcycle. The postie was often heard but never seen. You know you have got mail if you hear the ‘plop’ as he shuts the metal lid of the postbox down hard. It was always assumed the postie was male. He had a habit of riding on the muddy verge, making a serpentine track across a few properties along the quiet street. No one had ever caught him doing that but His Mrs felt sure the postie was the culprit. A week earlier, his bike had skidded on the slippery grass and, unable to brake hard enough, he had smashed his bike onto the letter box and broke the number plate, so the story went from house to house. The old man suspected the concocted story originated from within his house. His Mrs fumbled to open the side gate – the soil movement during the cold season had caused the gate to move an mm or two closer to the stone wall, freeing it from the lock required a strong push – but by the time she had rushed out to the front, the postie had long gone. He may have disappeared but the fresh soil his tyres had spun out of the ground caught her eyes. A neighbour across the park moved his curtains apart and looked at her. She stood akimbo, looked left, then right, hoping to catch a glimpse of the culprit. Incensed, she spat out some terse words in Hakka, not caring if anyone had misheard her tempestuous tirade as vulgarity. She snatched at the envelope containing the bank statement and was doubly annoyed to see the balance had shrunk dramatically. Eager to start a war with the old man, she didn’t bother to check the other mail as she rushed to the house. Her thongs flew off in opposite directions as she flicked them wildly to free them from her feet at the door.

It did not take long before war started. ‘The light of a lamp will shine until its fuel is spent,’ the old man remembered Marcus Aurelius once said. By that, the great emperor and philosopher meant that we should let our virtue and self-control shine for as long as we exist. But, the old man also knew it to be true to let His Mrs rant and rave until her energy is exhausted. Their wars were often one-sided. She would huff and puff and blow after blow, he would simply cop it without reply. It wasn’t like that for him always. For far too long, he would retaliate with his version of the truth. He had the need to prove his innocence, justify his actions and expel any suspicions of guilt. He had to be right. Sometimes, he had to be right even if he was in the wrong. He reasoned that if he was wrong once, he could be wrong again. So, he argued and argued to prove he was right. Wars do not end until opposing parties stop fighting. One day, a ray of sunshine appeared through the angry dark clouds in a sky of black rain and lashing winds. Just like that, the wars ended between the old man and His Mrs. It could be said the old man saw the light or maybe he saw His Mrs was right.

The mind freed is an impenetrable fortress.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48

Thinking about wars, the old man’s mind wandered off even though his physical presence was firmly entrenched on terra firma whilst His Mrs vented her disappointments at him. His brother-in-law had argued with him about only valuing what he could see, feel and touch. His reasons for banishing any thoughts of ever investing in the metaverse. “The metaverse is not real,” The Chap had said quite firmly over breakfast. “If I can’t hold it and can’t feel it, it is not real,” he continued. “I’d never put my money on what isn’t real.” The Chap resided in a world that was foreign to many, if not most people. For them, his world wasn’t real. The Chap was an avid golfer. To most people, golf was a game that should be banned. Fancy reserving large chunks of land for the elite few. Precious land near cities that could be used for worthwhile production or to house the needy or homeless. Instead, these large tracts of land had to be watered regularly and manicured immaculately to satisfy the whims of the rich and spoilt. “That is unreal!” the old man said. Not wanting to upset his in-law, the old man bit his lips till they bled. He reminded himself that his tongue should remain behind his teeth; when it’s unseen it will be unheard or not misheard. He had not drunk any alcohol that morning, so there was no need to argue about the truth. He had learnt from a learned friend recently. “In vino veritas,” John Scalzi said whilst munching on a lobster leg. “Under the influence of alcohol, a person tells the truth.”

Salt and pepper lobster at The Empress Restaurant. 30/9/2022
Eight treasure duck. “Treasure is never discovered out in the open,” the old man said.

If anyone contemplates starting a war, they better plan to win it decisively. The old man drifted away even as His Mrs was raising her voice, demanding to be informed where the bulk of their money had gone to. He learnt not from The Art of War, but from the war between the Medici family and the Pazzi family in the 15th century. The Medici name is still well-known today. After all, victors are remembered and losers are forgotten. Although the Pazzi family found a strong ally in Pope Sisto IV, they discovered that priests were unreliable with the sword. They managed to kill Giuliano Medici but Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’ Medici escaped and returned soon after with his army of friends and supporters and killed most of the Pazzi members. “There was a lesson to be learnt there,” the old man reminded himself.