From Plain Sailing To Plain And Ailing

I belong to the lucky generation. For me and my mates, our challenges in primary school were not about winning school prizes but winning kite-flying competitions with the meanest, sharpest strings laced with gently pounded coarse glass powder and glue. We were more concerned about which fighting spiders to keep safe from the cheeky friends with sticky hands who were keen to swap their meek ones when no one was looking. It was a mini miracle that none of us got our fingers sliced off by the lethal kite strings although Tua Pui Soo aka Fatty Soo lost half his fatty thigh when he accidentally landed on the sharp edge of a mirror as he slid off the workbench of the glass shop from where we salvaged the glass to weaponise our kite strings.

Kite-flying is universally enjoyed

Every year, we had our four seasons; some years, the marbles season was shorter which meant a longer “Gantok” or spinning top season. My favourite top was not so much prized for spinning the longest but rather for destroying the opponent’s tops. It was a fearsome destroyer, its original puny tip substituted with a thicker and sharpened iron tip. The aim of the game was to destroy the other tops by throwing the spinning top at them. While firmly grasping a string that had been tightly wound around the stem, the centrifugal force generated by the unwinding motion of the string will propel the spinning top onto the ground. The skill is to land your top on the others, thereby breaking them into smithereens. Killer top, I called mine fondly. There was also a season for collectible cards of movie stars. To increase our collection, we would take part in a game of “high fives” with our cards. The card that lands face up wins and the winner assumes ownership of the losing card. There was a season when I was totally invincible with a particularly favourite card. Alright, I have carried this burden of guilt for over 50 years; it is time to confess. It was a very dishonest and sly way of cheating my cousins. The way to always win is to cheat, of course. The law of probability states that. When I was lucky enough to collect two identical cards, I glued them together, back to back, so that both faces appear on either side. To ensure my winning way continued, all I had to do was hide one face side against my palm. When the card fell, it did not matter which side it landed on. Victory was guaranteed, see? In primary school, I did not care about exams or detention classes for being late. I led a mostly carefree and happy life. There were very few troubled moments, such as encounters with the ghosts in the house. But, that is another story. Other troubling moments were when my parents quarrelled. As a kid, such episodes felt frequent and frightening. My father roared like a lion but it did not help that my mother was unfazed by his roars. Maybe she knew barking dogs never bite. They never engaged in deploying missiles either, nothing got thrown at each other. Maybe I hid my killer top well. There was one incident when the bar stool lost its wooden legs though. We know from the Wu Assassins, wood is the weakest of all the elements. The Wood Wu did not even make an entrance in the Netflix series. The wooden legs were no match for the Earth Wu and the Iron Wu. Maybe it ultimately got destroyed by the Fire Wu. I did not dare ask my father if he burned them. When we got to high school, we switched from chasing one another during recess time to chasing lanky school girls with long hair. For those with rare victories such as winning a date with a girl – any girl at all – the immediate challenge was to keep her from being swooned over by a competitor. Life was mainly plain sailing for most of us, apart from one catastrophe or two. An example of a catastrophe would be walking a mile to catch a secret glimpse of the lanky girl with long hair at her balcony only to find a pack of hungry wolf-like boys at her door showing off their gleaming motorcycles which had been delivered hot off the showroom. Another catastrophe would be to lose your girlfriend to a school friend just nine weeks after you had left home to study overseas. Receiving a letter from her that informs you “the wolves are at my door” would have been catastrophic for someone whose life was plain sailing, right?

It was still plain sailing when I fell in love, seriously this time. Not puppy love, not an infatuation, not a fleeting crush. The one who made me feel crushed when she disarmingly said no to my request to join her on a morning jog. It was either a meeting arranged in heaven – a chance meeting to cross her path whilst jogging around her neighbourhood, or a sneaky surveillance strategy learned from Le Carre spy novels. Chance meetings are good storylines for love stories, so I shall stick to that. Years later, she told me her “no” was not a rejection. She would have loved to go jogging with me, “but you need to give me advance notice so I don’t leave my house without brushing my teeth. No one expects to meet anyone at six in the morning!” Ah, so considerate! So honest! We had many more chance meetings, especially in the uni library. She was predictably “bumped into” on the 2nd floor. After a few times, she disappeared. I bumped into her again when I ventured to the 3rd floor. She had her head buried in the books, yet I found a way to say hello to her. Our chance meetings would occur even if she happened to hide herself on the 6th floor. It did not dawn on me that she possibly was trying to avoid me. That is what chance meetings mean, no matter what, we would always meet. She rented a flat in Randwick. I was flatting in Kingsford with Gerald, a childhood friend from Penang. Randwick is a good twenty minute walk up a steep slope. I would buy my milk and bread from Franklins in Randwick and then drop by her flat in Silver Street. “Oh, I just happened to be shopping in your neighbourhood.” I stuttered as she opened her door hesitatingly. “Why? Isn’t it more convenient in Kingsford?” she asked, with feigned interest. I decided silence was a better answer. We do not question why chance meetings happen. We both were in the Commerce faculty in Uni of NSW, one of the biggest faculties in the uni, if not the biggest. Fate was indeed kind, somehow we ended up in the same tutorials and the same lecture halls. It never crossed my mind to attend evening tutorials but she did. “You get to learn from adult students who work full time rather than mingle with full time students who do not have practical work experience.” So sensible. Suddenly, I was attending evening classes too. But, I put that down to chance. It was plain sailing in those days. Education was free, apart from student union dues and costly textbooks. I only needed to work on weekends to make ends meet. During those student days, we didn’t eat out except for the occasional Big Mac or Filet O’fish. Entertainment came in the form of a 12 inch teevee and a cassette player that regularly played Joan Baez. Lunch never varied all year in my first year of uni, it comprised of one strawberry and peanut butter sandwich washed down with 250ml of full cream milk. Our chance meetings continued in the second year of Uni. It was only recently that I found out from Gerald why the girls felt safe with us. Safe and disinterested at us, to be exact. Somehow, they thought we were gay. Just because we were always seen together, like the moon and stars. Thankfully, my many chance meetings with the girl developed into a romance in our third year. I was soon helping her with her vegetable patches. She was more preoccupied with the snow pea, winter melon and long bean harvests than what Plato and Socrates had to say in our Philosophy classes. It’s upsetting to be reminded that she got a C (credit) for Philosophy whereas I got a P (pass). Her assignments were copied from mine, except she replaced my words with simpler ones. Due to the effort spent in her garden, my uni results went from D’s (Distinctions) and High D’s to C’s and P’s in my final year.

Once we graduated, we both found good jobs in Sydney’s CBD. A month later, we got married. Neither of us proposed. It was just plainly obvious that the two of us would marry each other. That’s fate, right? I became a father at 24. Then the twins came along in double-quick time. After that, life became plain. That’s a choice, you see. I still adhere to the idea that to bring up a young family, we do need to have a plain lifestyle that is stable and secure. A tumultuous or exciting one would be destabilising and distracting for kids, right? A plain life was by no means a boring life. The kids were a bundle of joy, they showered me with enthusiastic, effusive welcomes when I got home after work. I was chasing corporate ladders which eventually led me to a managerial position in Adelaide. Not long after that, we had the October 1987 sharemarket crash. The ailing economy saw interest rates shoot up to an unimaginable level of 19% p.a. Life was no longer plain sailing. I lost all the gains from a previously rampant sharemarket. Ready to totally divest the share portfolio and convert the profit into an apartment in Coogee, a brief procrastination saw a total wipe-out after the crash. After two decades of running my own business, we ended up with an ailing business that almost did not survive the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Now that I have turned 61, I look back at life and marvel at how much it has changed, from writing aerogrammes and sending telegrams in the 70’s to dial-up Internet in the 80’s. We witnessed the demise of the cassette tapes, facsimile machines, laser disks and compact disks. Now, there is 5G to look forward to even before we are connected to the fibre optic national broadband network. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate but so are my years. Life rudely awakens me when I realise The Mrs and I have been empty nesters for sixteen years already. Many loved ones have already left this world and I am starting to hear about ailments and debilitating health matters almost on a daily basis. Recently, I learned that cervical arthritic pain has nothing to do with the cervix. News about school friends’ ailments bombard our daily chats. Someone had open heart surgery, another had his brain tumour removed, some are diabetic. There is one with knee replacements, another with a hip replacement, and a few sufferers of mental depression. Ageing is not fun, it is no longer plain sailing. Anything and everything that made us laugh uncontrollably now seem a distant memory. I found a feel-good story though. On the 9th October, Duke University announced that humans have salamander-like ability to regrow cartilage in joints. Hopefully soon, hip replacements will be a thing of the past. There will be more medical breakthroughs! I am still the dude with the positive attitude. We cried when we lost our marbles in school, but now we shan’t cry if or when we lose our marbles.

A winter melon

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