First Son is turning 40 in a few days’ time.
A simple sentence, yet it hit me hard yesterday. We call him ‘Boy’, he being born a boy. We Chinese are so exact in our simplicity. Had The Mrs given birth to a girl, I would have called the baby ‘Girl’. There is no need to muck around – unless they were twin boys or twin girls. Calling my twin sons by the type of sex organ they have would be a useless way to get either to help with a chore. Calling them ‘Twins’ did’t work either – no one answered. So, “Boy” was reserved for First Son. Sometimes, he was “Boy-Boy” when The Mrs was in a good mood.
Boy is turning 40. The focus should be on him, right? Yet, the selfish gene in me could only think about myself. He’s turning 40 means I’m not turning old. I am already old! How did it happen? I hate to use the old cliche, but it is truly just in the blink of an eye. Yesterday, the painter working next door said I looked young, but by young he thought I was about 53 years old. This morning, the window cleaner working next door thought I was the same age as he. When his question about my age was simply met with silence, he said I looked 54. All I said was my son is turning 40 in a few days’ time. So, he asked me what my secret was. “The blue zone,” I said. “Okinawa,” I suggested. He being Italian suggested Sardinia. Fair enough, “just learn from those living in the blue zone,” I concluded. He said he practises Intermittent Fasting once a week. “Once a week is really intermittent!” I said. “I do it intermittently, daily,” I added with a silly pride in my voice. Well…. it’s ok to be happy, I reminded myself.
The painter looks like he’s always out in the sun, with a sun-baked smell sweetened by a hint of paint fumes and ruffled hair drenched in sweat that is alarmingly exposing much of his forehead. He goes by the name of Alberto Pancotti. Alberto Pancotti is also his stage name. He has been painting my neighbour’s timber windows and doors all week. They obviously love timber features in their house. “All week just to paint the windows and doors?!” my neighbour asked, pretending to be ignorant of the timber features so that maybe they can hope for a lower bill from the painter. I invited Alberto in for a cup of coffee a couple of days ago. He tried some “love letters” for the first time in his life, and loved them. I told him he’s the first man I’ve given love letters to. We have “love letters” only during Chinese New Year. Better known as “kueh kapit’, these delicious coconut crepes are so flaky and crispy that I have yet to find someone who doesn’t like the Nonya invention. Alberto the Painter looks unkempt and grotty with random paint splashes all over his white shorts much like a Jackson Pollock work of art. His hair is sparse at the top, so you won’t find him nodding his head much. He saw the photo of my sons performing at Carnegie Hall proudly displayed on my four-foot aquarium. So, we started talking about music and how lucky musicians are, “working” when they are in fact enjoying; getting paid to play on stage and fulfilling their passion for music. Alberto then told me he is also a professional musician – he plays the bass guitar and double bass which he self-learned and mastered in six short months. Wow! I could not imagine him on stage as a rock star, not when he is wearing Jackson Pollock pants and a simple white cotton tee. He is actually a member of The T.I.C. Band. “Tic?” I asked without tack. Tributes In Concert Band is a very sought-after band for music festivals the whole world over. You will know them if you are an Elvis Presley fan. They are well known and a must-have band in any Elvis festival. Little Adelaide never ceases to surprise me, it may be just a small dot in the world yet, we keep producing world-class people who are the best in their field. The Sydney Elvis Festival promoted them as the world’s best Elvis band. They got a rave promo spiel in America also. See https://www.tupeloelvisfestival.com/tic-band
Boy is turning 40. I should focus on him. He already made us cry even when he was in a test tube. The Mrs and I had just got married for a few weeks in 1981 when she realised there was something wrong with her. I could have told her that but she never asked me. Suddenly, she had a craving for sausages and sausages only. She was working in the investment arm of OPSM Superannuation Fund near Martin Place in Sydney. One morning, she told the tea lady she didn’t know what was wrong with her, rejecting the Arnotts biscuits offered by the kindly old woman who spent her idle time in the tea room knitting something woollen. “I used to love these biscuits, especially these Butter Scotch biscuits,” The Mrs groaned. “Silly girl, you’re pregnant,” was the tea lady’s uncanny prognosis. So, on the weekend, The Mrs sent me to the chemist to get a pregnancy test kit. It was the same chemist that I was too embarrassed to go in to buy my first packet of condoms, so I sent her to get them instead. She did the test in the morning and being a Saturday packed with fun activities, we forgot to check the test tube until many hours later. I rushed to the bedroom from the kitchen when I suddenly remembered the result was waiting to be discovered. I felt numb and dazed when I saw the brown ring on the bottom of the tube. What? How? Disbelieving it, I trudged uncertainly to the kitchen and handed the tube to The Mrs. My pale wan face was enough to tell the story. She burst out in tears and I joined her in an embrace that told us our world as we knew it had ended. That was forty years and nine months ago. My life changed forever when I brought a new life to this world. Scrubbed out from my lifestyle were the words carefree and careless. Parenthood did not allow me the luxury of being either. Looking back to that moment in my life, I will now admit I was far from ready to become responsible for a new-born. We live with the choices we make in life. The choice I made in the brief moment of frenzied sex was to not bother with a condom. Well, we had just got married for a few weeks. We were young and hungry for each other. We didn’t have the money to buy a new bed for ourselves, so we simply joined our single bed mattresses on the floor. By the time the sex was over, our mattresses were far apart. I guess the earth moved whilst we moved. The sex we had was as steamy, urgent and wild as the sex scenes imagined by D.H. Lawrence. No time for a condom! Wear something for sex? No, take everything off!
Boy was stubborn even in his mummy’s tummy. The Mrs said he made her crave for roast duck. That had replaced the sausages she so desperately needed for many months. I didn’t understand the fanciful whims of a pregnant woman and told her I wasn’t going to spoil her by granting her every wish. Whoa!! I took it back very quickly. She made it feel like it was the end of the world if she didn’t get her roast duck from Sydney’s Chinatown. I made that long journey in prime time traffic to satisfy her urge but by the time I came home with the juiciest and freshest roast duck, her urge had waned. I knew for the rest of my life I’d never ever understand women, especially pregnant ones. The gynaecologist said the baby was a prankster with the worst timing. Dr. Ng’s century egg pork congee had just arrived at her table in a restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown when Boy decided it was time he was introduced to the world. She had waited patiently for some thirty minutes for her congee but before she could dig her spoon into the bowl, her pager beeped for her to return to work. The Mrs had already suffered twelve hours of labour pains by then. No amount of coaxing by Dr. Ng would entice Boy to face the world. The stubborn boy showed who was boss. Dr. Ng in the end pronounced that the mother was developing a fever and the breeched boy had to be pulled out by caesarian section. It being an emergency surgical procedure, the father would not be granted access into the delivery room. So, I missed out on seeing my own creation come into this world; all I did was loitered in the waiting room after finding myself a nice hot cuppa. The Mrs missed out on seeing her baby’s first cry too. A nurse led me to her later in the night, it was already well past sixteen hours after her water broke at five in the morning. She was still shivering violently after coming out of the anaesthesia in a dark lonely corridor. “Just one more child, ok?” she pleaded in a whimpering tone with me. What an amazing woman, I thought to myself. If it were me, I would have screamed “No way am I friggin’ going through this hell again for anyone!” So, I said in a benevolent voice, “Sure, one more and that’s it, luv.” The Mrs didn’t get to see Boy until the next morning.
Boy was a handsome baby. Somehow, he copped a lot of negative remarks about his looks. “Bak pao bin,” my sister-in-law said. For those who do not know Hokkien, it meant “pork bun face”. Hmmmm, delicious. Someone called him “moon face” too, but I didn’t mind. Bert Newton, a huge TV personality, was also affectionately called “moon face” and he didn’t care. Uncle Daniel said Boy was a genius, and I whole-heartedly agreed. Pa said he was going to be a movie star. A star, anyway. Boy was just nine months old when he displayed his amazing brain power by stringing sentences in Mandarin. One afternoon, The Mrs took a few hours’ break from him and caught a taxi to Coogee to visit her parents. Ma was visiting from Malaysia, so she babysat Boy whilst he had his afternoon nap. She sneaked out to the local bottle shop to get a flagon of dry sherry, her favourite drink in those days. As she was opening the front door and before she could take her first step into the house, Boy asked his grandma in Mandarin, “You’ve gone to buy wine again?” 您又賣酒啊？Ma was lost for words, her hand holding the flagon behind her back did not hide the truth.
We adults did not understand how much we disappointed our kids. I mean, we didn’t even know the names of the computer games and movies they played and watched. So detached were we from their interests. It was the era of Police Academy, Return of the Jedi, The Protector, Duck Tales and Commando, and in games, the rage was Donkey Kong 2, Greenhouse, Alley Cat, Striker and Parachute. When Boy was 8, he wrote in his diary he wanted to buy a “good book” in a book store just opposite the mall from his mother’s shop. So, he asked her if she could get it for him. “Mum just ignored me,” he wrote. See, from a child’s perspective, he felt his mother ignored him. Maybe The Mrs was busily serving customers or ordering stock? Maybe her mind was miles away worrying about her ill mother? I disappointed him too. He thought I knew everything, I think I may have told him that. I bought him a joystick and left him to install it himself. He rang me to tell me there was no input socket on his computer for the joystick. I told him that joystick would fit any computer and to wait for me to fit it when I got home from work. All three boys were so excited and greeted me wildly as I stepped into the house, they had waited all day to play with the joystick. The reason is withheld but I had to bring it back to Tandy’s the next day. Disappointing!
There was also the time when I lost a bet and forgot to pay him. His mother had allowed him to go to TTP with her, a shopping centre in Modbury where she worked. But, he woke up too late and missed the outing. When we got home from work, we told Boy and his two brothers to dress up for Thea’s anniversary party. Thea Dubois worked for us as our house cleaner. We loved apricot season, as she would bring a big bag of apricots from her garden for us every week. Yummy. I forgot the way to her house and kept reaching the same wrong street. Boy said to me I had gone too far up, but I was sure I was right. So, I asked him to bet $10 if he was so sure. Boy said he didn’t have $10, so we agreed on a dollar – he told me he was sure he had that in his money tin. I turned the car back and surprisingly, Boy won the bet, he was eight years old. We found Thea’s house!
Boy reminded me of the day they almost died. In a passage in his diary, he wrote 4th Aunt took them to the Cottage, a cinema that was showing Jack and The Beanstalk. She left the three brothers and her two kids in her car whilst she ducked out for a “short meeting”. But, she had an argument with the person she was meeting, and they were stuck inside the hot car for a long time. “We couldn’t breathe because there was no air. The doors were locked and the alarm had gone off. The electric windows were up and they could not wind them down. 4th Aunt quickly turned on the aircond for us when she arrived.” Jack and the Beanstalk was boring by comparison.
Boy was a confident boy. He usually beat his brothers in chess, but come to think of it, he used to beat and kick them all the time too. On the odd occasion that he lost to them in a chess game, he would tell himself he lost because he was watching John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles play at The Australian Open. Boy was the eldest by two years and therefore the most alert. Uncannily, he would be the first to know lunch was ready in the kitchen. Gung-gung, maternal grand-dad said he would call out to his brothers to let them know, “Come, eat!” but after he had scoffed down a few mouthfuls first. It is therefore not surprising that he was always bigger and taller than his brothers.
Boy has grown into a confident young man. I was hesitant to use the word ‘young’ since I am not convinced turning 40 is appropriately considered young. He is attuned to how the most successful people think and do. I suppose it is a good method to adopt, follow the path of the clever, the righteous and the wise ones. Follow the wise, I like that he does that.
“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38
Unfortunately, it does mean he therefore doesn’t listen to my advice as much as I like. I do not have the right credentials, see? The 1987 and 2008 sharemarket crashes saw to that. Besides, he complains I need to be stoic. I learned about stoicism when I was a scrawny teenager, reading about the heroic tales of the Spartans. Soldiers who fought fearlessly and loyally, who stood their ground without complaints against impossible odds to rise up victorious – that’s stoic. The Agoge, a state system that emphasised duty, discipline and endurance would have suited Boy, so much respect he has for their philosophy. He bought me a book for Christmas. It has daily messages or reminders about being stoic, containing daily quotes by Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Seneca and Epictetus. Two Romans, one Greek but all three, superb philosophers and thinkers. Marcus Aurelius was also the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of peace and stability for the Roman Empire, perhaps reflecting his stoic philosophy. But, I do wonder if Marcus Aurelius minded his opulent and sybaritic lifestyle, being an emperor? It would be quite easy to preach stoicism and encourage us not to sweat the small stuff whilst immersing himself in pleasure and treasure.
One of the most important reminder from Boy is to keep to the path of serenity. I have stopped chasing fame and fortune a long time ago. Most things are ephemeral, anyway. They don’t last, especially fashion and material wealth, perfect weather and luck. So, there’s no need to pray for them. The only true thing we possess is our ability to make choices; our mind is the only thing we control, everything else is outside our control – even our physical body can be marred by illness or impairment. So, it is truly simple – all we have to mind is our mind.
“There is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice.”Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.39
So, maybe by the end of this year, I will be a rising Stoic also. He is already one, my rising son. A saying I love from the book he gave me is this:
“No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.14
Similarly, no one should be able to deprive us of our peace and happiness since that’s not theirs but ours to hold dear.