No, I Know

My name is Murray. I am a very clever Miniature Poodle, born in Murray Bridge. Read on if you don’t believe me. When I turned two weeks old, a tall Chinese man drove up the gravel driveway of my mum’s sandstone cottage. The crunching sound his car tyres made on the stones stressed me a lot. The visitors often parked right in front of the barn and from our straw bed below the window, now opaque by decades-old dirt and dead cobwebs caked permanently onto the pane, my siblings and I knew the visitors came with a motive. Whenever we heard the gravel crunch and the brakes of the cars squeal, our family would shrink by one that day. We were left with just the two of us when the Chinese man came and introduced himself. He smelt different, better actually, than the hunger-inducing aroma of deep-fried chips and burnt chicken nuggets that often whiffed their way from the kitchen of the main house. The smells were actually quite rancid, but we dogs don’t mind it. It was much later that I discovered the Chinese man smelt of fried rice and Cantonese roast duck.

Our mum’s owner, Alice Brown, didn’t ever cook Chinese meals. A typically bronzed Aussie woman in her hey-day, Alice Brown’s casual drawl from the post-war era no longer fitted the mould of a tough and forceful woman in modern Australia today. She harked from the time when a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding was as compulsory as attending church on Sundays. Her CD collections were displayed prominently in the messy lounge room – The Seekers, Little Pattie and Helen Reddy still featured daily in her selections. “How may I help you, Luv?” she asked the Chinese man in a low husky voice that was incongruous with her sweet round face. When she smiled, her doe eyes disappeared beneath the many folds of subcutaneous fat. She wore a big tightly-bound bun and the muslin apron that hung from her neck introduced her as someone that Murphy’s Law resonated with. “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” were the eight words printed in bold letters across it.

“Don’t mind me, Possum – we had just finished tea,” she apologised to the Chinese man about her greasy hands as she hastily rubbed her callused fingers vigorously against her apron that was well overdue for a wash. “Tea” to people of her generation meant dinner. In the olden days, folks in the outback went to bed early on account of dark nights without electricity, and therefore, without purpose. They had their dinner early whilst the food was still visible. Whatever light remaining would disappear soon after the dishes were washed in scalding sudsy water. Tarnished silver cutlery and sparkling dinnerware (one plate with a bad chip) were all dripping with suds as they rested on the dish rack. No, they did not believe there was any need to rinse them off. Water had always been precious in this thirsty continent.

Dame Edna Everage would have understood Alice Brown to a T – they hailed from the same era but the Dame turned worldly and fashionable after discovering the limelight of stage entertainment in the mid 1950’s. Alice Brown kept her sun-ravaged fast-greying golden curls short whereas the Dame’s thick and healthy tresse became trade-marked by an elaborate Wisteria-purple coiffure. New arrivals to the sun-parched country were easily fooled by these true-blue Aussies – sharing round after round of Aristotle during their raucous conversations showed a glimmer of their philosophical leanings but they only meant passing the bottle around. Aristotle was their code-word for the bottle.

The tall man picked my twin brother, but I out-muscled the puny pup that was crawling next to me. I was named Harley, after a motorcycle brand that holds an imposing presence on the road with its mean cult-like image of brute and chrome, and loud and obstreperous torque. Maybe in a previous life, I was a Harley Davidson rider with Morbius and Lucifer tattoos permanently stencilled on my burly arms and legs. Recently, there was news of Diego Maradona’s passing. It raised the hair on my neck as I watched the eerie throwback of seeing a version of my past resembling the football God in his prime. Stout, strong and muscular like a bull.

I liked the kind look of the Chinese man. He returned my brother to the straw bed and picked me up instead after my perfect demonstration of standing on my hind legs caught his attention. No, I know the art of persuasion. People are careful to pick the best, the strongest and the healthiest. My brother and I were priced the same. The Chinese man easily saw I was the better value and did not flinch when told my price was not negotiable. He sounded too eager to seal the deal and Alice Brown, although in her late 80’s, was still as sharp as a tack. I liked the man immediately – a generous chap who would not hesitate to pay a fair price and did not quibble about a few dollars and cents.

Now I proudly call him Master. Master held me up apprehensively like a first-time father would with a new-born. Uncertain of the strength of his grip, he almost dropped me as I struggled to free my neck from his thick hands. He looked like a super-fit UFC fighter but the way he gingerly bent down to pat my head before picking me up belied his tough exterior. The roughness of his palms and the little bit of dirt under his middle fingernail misled me to think he was an avid gardener. I found out later they were made coarse by the handle bars of his dumb-bells.

Master didn’t agree that I should be named after a bike. So, he re-named me after an inconsequential town instead. He runs an internet-based business – maybe he liked the name Murray because it sounds like money. “Come Murray! Come, money!” Due to the pandemic, there has been a huge uptick in the demand for pets during the lockdowns. Master has almost doubled his money from investing in me but he hasn’t yet considered sharing some of his profits with me. Minutes after the required cash exchanged hands, Alice Brown bade me a quick farewell and placed me in a cage in the back of a neglected Rav 4. I took a fleeting last look at my birth place and said my goodbye. The garden, if one could still call that, was in its dying throes. What was once a quaint English rose garden had long been overwhelmed by nine years of the Millennium Drought. Salvation Jane, Dandelion, Bindii and the prickly Thistle had overtaken the withered and scraggly rose bushes – telltale signs of the ageing occupants’ impending demise. Even the most ardent gardener will eventually surrender to Mother Nature.

My first car ride was on National Highway M1, heading in a north-westerly direction towards Adelaide. It was quite apparent Master seldom washed his car. His boot was littered with yellowed and curled up receipts. scrunched up bank statements and other investment accounts that should have been paperless to save on fees and quite a few used foam coffee cups accentuated the mess. Does he have a sight impairment – he can’t see them? Was it his way to avoid littering the environment? My questions will remain forever unanswered. His rubbish kept me amused for about an hour until he announced, “Welcome to your new home,” as he drove up the short steep driveway into the multi-level carpark.

Master lives in a boxy building that is pigeon-holed with small rooms. The only way up to his one bedroom apartment is through a steel box which opens with a loud “TING” whenever he presses the button that has the arrow pointing up. Master was upset with me one day when I farted in the steel box they call a lift. The young lady, in a tight red dress, standing next to him pinched her nose tightly when the odour rose upwards towards her nostrils. I think she assumed it was Master’s uncontrolled indiscretion – she found me too cute and adorable to be capable of such outlandish behaviour. No, I know she won’t think I was capable of producing such evil smells. I do wonder what Master feeds me that cause such pungent gas to grow inside me. Master pretended he had anosmia, a nose impairment, and stared blankly at the walls of the lift. He scolded me as soon as we left that stinky steel box. “Do that again and you’ll spend the night in the bathroom,” before adding “in the dark!” What a mean fella.

The following morning, Master brought me to see his parents. Humans are strange, why would his parents teach me to call them papa and mama. I am not Master’s brother, am I? Let me describe mama first, since she is the more interesting character. Mama is always “hen lei”, which means very tired in her mother tongue. It is very easy to please mama – all she needs is my total attention right before dinner is ready. No, I know when food is about to be delivered. She is better than Uber Eats, the waiting time is short and her food is to die for. The Uber Eats meals that Master frequently orders in are oily and salty and take too long to arrive. Mama is a great cook – her favourite Youtube videos are mostly about quick and easy recipes. When she is busy in the kitchen, I am at my best behaviour. Mama loves me to sit still like a quiet boy but instead of reading a book, I read her face and body movements. When she blows into my dinner bowl to cool down the food from her wok, I know it is dinner time! No, I know to walk towards her and wag my tail. She loves that and the routine that follows next. “Murray, sit. Stay, stay, stayyyy….” Mama wants me to be like a Madame Tussaud waxed puppy and remain stationary until she yelps out “OK!”. That’s the command for me to come alive from the pretend coma.

In the first few months of my life, I struggled to get up the two steps from her kitchen to the family room. Each step was almost two-thirds my height. Mama said I looked so cute like a ball of fur trying to roll up the steps but would she say the same if she saw Master climbing over chairs and bar stools to get to the family room? Mama should be certified mad. She reckons her chooks understand her every word. The other day, she told me I should be more like them and accept that everything she says is correct.

Papa on the other hand, is just predictable. I love him as much as I would love my grand-dad. He loves me unconditionally. Unlike mama, he does not hold a tasty treat and toy with it whilst asking me if I love him. No, I know he knows our love is mutual. Words are not necessary between us. I know papa very well and can accurately read his every look and gesture. I know when his day is done without the need to look at the clock. I am off his lap even before he shuts his laptop, and doing the downward-dog by the time he stands to stretch his aching arms above his head. His sighs and laboured breaths tell me when he is despondent and that happens a lot when he is watching his football team play, which is often before the crack of dawn here. Last week, I whined to tell him it is time to change his team. For me, Manchester United are obviously much inferior than their city neighbours. Yet, the old man foolishly persists and his agony will continue to be self-inflicted.

Papa, although shrinking, is still quite tall. I get so tired of having to look up at him whenever he takes me for a walk. No, I know I shouldn’t feel insecure; for sure he will never abandon me. They do not understand how strenuous it is on my neck – I don’t see them looking up to the sky all the while during their walks, yet that is what I do, looking vertically up at papa’s face to make sure he does not run off without me. Papa is a little bit weird. He insists on deliberately looking to his left and then looking to his right three times before he crosses the quiet street to the park opposite. Their house is in a cul-de-sac, which means there is hardly a car that zooms pass. No, I know he is merely teaching me to cross the road but hey, all I have to do is scoot across when he yells “Now!”

Papa adores me which makes it really easy to manipulate his feelings. He especially loves it when I whimper and sob as he walks down the stairs from his bedroom each morning. That is how he knows I miss him so much. I stay over with the old folks on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Their “Good morning” wishes to each other are comparatively bland. Mine please them a lot and they are immediately cheerful – they believe I am sincere with my “over-the top” welcome. I mean, who else whimpers and sobs when they say “Good morning?!” They gauge my enthusiasm by the speed and vigour of my tail-wags. No, I know I shouldn’t be insincere, but a good performance is highly rewarding. I get a few extra minutes of belly-rub from both of them. Humans have to pay to have a good body rub at a massage parlour; I get mine by simply saying “Good morning.”

Papa feels loved, and that can’t be so wrong of me, right? Papa loves football – he thinks I love being the goalie. Between you and me, that game easily bores me but I shall not disappoint him. Let me confide here that I prefer to chase the chooks instead. No, I know I am the king of the backyard when I turn maniacal to make mama’s girls squawk. The cacophony sounds almost symphonic, especially if the Kookaburras and Magpies chime in. I imagine I can be a modern-day Vivaldi. The girls are flustered by my fierce barks and are visibly terrified by my attempts to mow down the galvanised fence. No, I know I am the silverback in the backyard but what I fail to see is why they act with absolute nonchalance and walk away unperturbed as soon as papa throws some grain and seeds at them. Instantly, they will forget I am even there. I think their bird-brains simply switch off, which explains why they have such short memories. Just take a look at them now, waddling side to side, proud of their overgrown backsides. I bark with contempt at Brooke, her feathers around where her eggs pop out from are often smeared with her own poop. Mama should not have told me they think I am as threatening as a little lost kitten.

24 May 2019 will live in my memory for a long time. On that autumn day, I lost my balls. No, I know you will try and use fuzzy words to disguise the brutality of the act. Humans are good at doing that. They use words to mollify their victims so they feel little or no guilt from their cruelty. Yes, call it what it is please. It is callous, cruel and downright rude. Don’t I have rights too? When the state sanctions a killing of a human being, they call it “neutralise the target.” They use weasel words such as “alternative news” when they mean “fake news” or “negative patient outcome” when they mean “dead”. When they say “with due respect,” they are about to show their disrespect and argue with you. Master brought me to the vet on that fateful day – he said I needed to be neutered or desexed. I failed to understand him at the time, wondering how to desex me when my sex was already determined – a male endowed with all the wonderful organs intact. They cut off my balls. So that I won’t chase the ladies in the park. “Urghhlings.” I heard papa cry out in pain when I told him it hurt so much. So what if I loved playing chasey?

Papa loves playing chasey too – but I think he has forgotten how the Don in The Godfather died in his tomato garden. He thinks he gets enough steps on his “Health app” by routinely chasing me round and round the garden bench like a runaway lawn mower. Papa is devoid of fresh ideas – his favourite game is “Fetch”, a brain-numbing game of throwing the ball towards me so that I can return it to him. Mama says he is colourless and boring. I agree! The old man insists on playing the same game, day in day out. No, I know he means well, playing Treasure Hunt, a sun-bleached bone being my treasure. But the poor chap simply hasn’t got a clue when he plays hide-n-seek with me. Somehow he doesn’t realise I can smell the bone a mile away – no matter how deep he buries it. Chinese lessons are held during afternoon tea time – the only time I have to respond to his “hai yao mah (还要吗).” I am expected to nod my head enthusiastically before he will grudgingly give me some biscuit crumbs. A real scrooge. No, I know he means well, the Butter Scotch biscuits are too sweet for me. They are bad for my teeth.

I don’t need to brush my teeth.

But, why does papa not brush my teeth instead? Whenever he brushes his teeth, he threatens to brush mine too. I bite my teeth to show him mine are even and white, and my deadly incisors need no sharpening. Poor papa, his are crooked, jagged and worst of all, coffee-stained, despite the straw he uses. Look at his photos – there isn’t one with him smiling. It is not because he is sad, it is his malocclusion that embarrasses him. No, I know I shouldn’t say that. He couldn’t afford to have his teeth perfected by the local orthodontist during his prime – which says a lot about his prime. He harped about beauty being skin-deep. “Pretty teeth don’t improve the taste of food,” he insisted.

Papa lives a boring life, too sedentary for my liking. I do enjoy his phone conversations with Horace though. Horrors, Horace sounds like a customer from Hell. No, I know papa should be more patient with his customers, but from the gist of his complaints, Horace is an internet illiterate who shouldn’t be buying stuff online. I pity papa sometimes – the fools he has to tolerate would drive me mad too. Yesterday, there was a woman who claimed she did not receive her parcel even though her online tracking showed it was delivered. “Please can you check again?” I heard papa ask in a tired and resigned voice. “NO, I KNOW IT IS NOT HERE!” the woman screamed at him. Today, she rang to say she forgot she had her order sent to her daughter’s address, so everything is alright now. After she hung up, I heard papa cursed under his breath the same 4-lettered vulgar word that is too frequently used in the Netflix miniseries they watch nightly. Papa is always working at his desk. No sales reps call on him anymore, ever since he moved his office to home. No one buys him his favourite cappuccino anymore – he used to enjoy free coffee from reps who queued up to see him. He reminisces a lot about the “good old days” but those days aren’t coming back.

No, I know he feels his “reign” is over – he is almost a “has-been”, ready to join the retired or the irrelevant. I sincerely wish he is aware not to become irreverent with bitterness or despair. I keep him company, as loyal as a dog, one may say. I am always in his arms when he works. He looks a lonely figure, his back hunched with a perfectly shaped C. His mind convinces him he sits with a straight back. No, I know I cannot admit that I pity papa – that being the only reason why I am glued to him all day. He thinks I behave like a booze-besotten drunk, so dependent on him that I would panic in his absence. Click, click, click click, he frantically punches at his keyboard. Papa thinks he is a fast writer, but he does not know how to touch type, so how fast can he be? I suspect his speed was at best 30 wpm, his productivity at the keyboard further reduced by the numerous back-spacings and corrections. He blames me for slowing him down. The nerve of the man. No, I know I should tone down and be more respectful. I do like to rest my hand on his as a way of affirming we are good pals. This morning, I was surprised to see 000000000000000000000000000000000 appearing on his computer screen as my paw accidentally slid off his hand and landed on the 0 on his keyboard.

Papa is difficult to understand, maybe he is just difficult. I was just two weeks old when I became a member of this family – my total length including my tail was shorter than half his lower arm. Today, I am fully grown. Yet, he still makes me lie on the same pillow, knowing I have more than doubled in length. No, I know I sound like I am complaining. But, it is just my way of sharing with you the frustrations I have. Papa should be certified mad. The other day, he asked his goldfish who was the oldest philosopher. Confucius, Socrates or Plato? He kept asking them. He told me they couldn’t agree. I could have told him the Chinese sage was the paragon of sages and the oldest, but he didn’t ask me.

Why won’t papa buy me a pillow?

Papa works many hours at his desk. I have nothing to do, except wait for him to finish work so we can play together. Papa has another disorder, it is called trichotillomania. He leaves his hair everywhere like a dog leaves its pee everywhere. I have noticed he is prone to yanking his hair more violently the more he has trouble reconciling his creditors ledger. I can’t say papa is fair to me. Papa should appreciate me more but he complains at my slightest indiscretions. He farts a lot but when I reciprocate, he gets upset with me. “Aiiiiya! Murray! Stop it!” he yells at me impatiently. He forgets I am the one with the superior sense of smell. I suffer his bad smells silently, as a loyal friend would, whereas he will make a big song and dance about the small puffs that I push out occasionally. Hush hush, please do not tell him this puppy does it on purpose to pass his time. He doesn’t know I find it quite entertaining to see his hilarious reactions to my harmless flatulence. We are often confused about our own scent. Does he smell like me or is it the other way round? Papa said his clothes stank of my farts. I could have just as easily argued my point but I wagged my tail instead of my tongue. No, I know I am beginning to smell like an old man.

Look, synchronised yoga

Shhh Or Shoo

Shhh or shoo. Either word isn’t kind. This is the truth about how it feels when these words are used on us and when it comes from someone who frequently bears the brunt of such words, then maybe you would want to refrain from using them too often. Either word would amply describe me if I were limited to one word to portray the whole of myself. At work or business, what I say usually stands. No one would tell me to shut up or shoo me away like an annoying fly. But, socially or within the comfort of my own castle, the ugly truth is undeniable. Sure, it bugs me that I am in the wrong universe. I feel it. I often feel I am in a place that I don’t belong. People around me do not know the real me. Am I really who they think I am? Am I not more? Much more than the bumbling fool they often snigger at? Why am I only one they poke fun at? The joke is always on me, it seems.

As I sit here deep in my thoughts, I must emphasise that I am not one who likes to lift off drying scabs and relive old wounds. No! This is not who I am. This must not be who I am. It does not matter if they can’t appreciate me. It must not cut me down even if it is true that I am a lot less than the lies I tell myself. For a long time now, the castle in my mind has been carefully built to protect myself. The ego had been my hero. The arrows aimed at my direction had been mostly successfully thwarted. My defence had stood firm, the thick walls impenetrable. Rock-solid and stoic, I let my wit come to the fore and try to be the Perry Mason in my life. So silly is my conclusion, now that I take stock of who I am. We should never have the need to defend ourselves. Who cares what their impression is of us? Why bother if they can’t see our positives? Why feel hurt if they are often dismissive of our input? Does it really matter if they think less of us? Why should we feel we need to be appreciated? Why behave like the entitled? So what if we are misunderstood? Let it be. Let them be. Forgive and forget. Better still, just forget – there is nothing to forgive.

It is easier to go around anointing myself as the annoying one. When I re-connected with my school friends, I announced myself as the idiot in the group. It is self-deprecating. Why do I disparage myself? Without self-respect, why would anyone respect us. I think it was a poor attempt to be like a lotus – to tell them I could rise above the mud, the muck they think I belong to. My friends tell me to be quiet a lot, especially when we are barracking for our football team, the great Manchester United Football Club. “SHHHHH!” “GO TO BED AND LIVE YOUR NIGHTMARES BY YOURSELF!” “SHOO!” “LEAVE NOW!” There is one who is especially unkind. He thinks he is the referee on the field, frenetic with issuing red cards to me. A red card is much more than sending a player to the sin-bin. In Rugby, a yellow card offence means the player is sent off the field for 10 minutes. In soccer, however, a red card means the player is sent off for the remaining duration of the match. So, I know full well what a red card means when this friend flashes it at me. He intends for me to disappear for the rest of the match. How unkind. How unwelcoming. Friends are supposed to be inclusive amongst one another. He talks a lot about the need to avoid negative vibes, but to exclude a friend surely is the most negative act?

When I was a young boy, any man past his 50’s was an old man in my eyes. At 62, I am glad my eyesight is failing. The old man in the mirror looms large. I suspect he is decaying faster with each passing year. Last night was another Chap Goh Meh, the last night of another 15 days of Lunar New Year celebrations. It was a wonderful party although my bubbly mood was somewhat pricked by a casual observation an acquaintance from another table made about me. He pointed to my should-length hair and said I remind him of a person who zhoujianghu. In olden day China, those who “walk the rivers and lakes” travelled far and wide in search of a livelihood. It depicts a vagabond, a shady desperate con-artist whose survival requires street-smart deception. A quack, a charlatan? Did I remind him of Rasputin, I wonder? No, I said to the man. I prefer the word “Thu-fei”, a bandit. But, do you see what I mean? This encounter sums up my life pretty well. A happy occasion, a wonderful party with family and closest friends that ended with an unsought somewhat derogatory comment about me from someone at another table.

Playing with my heroes

11 April 2018 was a happy day for me. When in New York, the two places not to be missed are the Metropolitan Museum and Tarisio, a respectable auction house that deals in fine instruments and bows. I was turning 60 that year. The concept of retirement was already growing in my head. For much of my life, retirement meant one thing. The freedom and time to pick up my violin again. But, as I accelerate towards this inevitability, I decided I wanted to reward myself with a really good violin. Second Son was in New York at the time – he was my reason to be there. America is not my idea of a good holiday, if the truth be told. It was my second visit to the Big Apple, but those officers at the airport were as unwelcome and arrogant as the ones in LA. They did not treat visitors to their land as paying guests but rather saw us as potential enemies. Or, maybe it was just the way I looked. The hair and my scowl won’t hide the Rasputin image I sub-consciously project? “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” the officer bellowed whilst scrutinising my passport. “WHERE WILL YOU BE STAYING?” his cold eyes piercing. “HAVE YOU BROUGHT ENOUGH MONEY?” He behaved like a real prick, a bully in a bad mood. He knew I couldn’t retaliate, not even with acidic words to teach him some manners.

Second Son met me and his mum in our hotel room the next day. America by then had become a nicer place to hang out. We were in the centre of the world. After all, isn’t that what the Americans believe? They are the most powerful nation on Earth, the wealthiest and New York, the city that never sleeps, that has a street named after a wall, in 2008 crushed all the economies of the world with pure greed and not grit. Second Son enthusiastically took me to the 55th Street where the famous Tarisio store is located. Tarisio featured regularly in The Strad, a magazine I subscribed to for over a decade. So, that feeling was special. To finally arrive at a place we only read about for a big part of our lives felt like a big achievement, ridiculous as it may sound. The chap at Tarisio made me feel special for I was able to tour their premises and even occupy a room for as long as I liked. He was ostensibly lively, switched on like a string of 10,000 light bulbs – clearly at work to shine and impress his clients. Ordinary people who walk in from the street aren’t accorded such special courtesy, of course. I felt special because Second Son was there with me. The chap obviously knew Second Son – they were on first names basis, even though Second Son was a Londoner. I felt so happy for my son. He was well-known, not in a small pond, but on the biggest stage too. The chap, after a chirpy conversation with Second Son, arranged for a few fine instruments to be brought into the room. No, no Strads, no Del Gesus of course. We settled for makers that were within my small budget. The chap was surprisingly nice, for an American. To accord us so much time, knowing my budget was minuscule was un-American, right? He couldn’t be a true New Yorker, I decided.

After admiring the instruments for a long time, I thought it best to start playing them. After all, what good is a beautiful violin if the sound is crap? I picked up the violin that had enthralled me with its beauty and brandished a modern-looking bow like it was a Samurai sword. I was horrified. The sound was dead ugly. I grimaced at the violin. “What a shit of a shovel,” I thought – that’s an old Aussie parlance for something so shitty it should be immediately discarded. There I was sitting on a chair below a display of framed photographs. Legends in the business looked down at me, literally. Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals were both heroes of mine. I think I wiped off their smiles with just one swipe of the bow. The violin sounded crappy, not because it was made in some East European sweat-shop. It was me. I looked into the wall mirror across from me. I recoiled as if I had seen Joe Blake in the garden. Joe Blake, the snake – in case you do not understand this old Aussie slang. I looked the part, with my long hair. My bow hold looked perfect, the sound from it ought not to sound tight. But, it sounded awful. I thought I could simply put bow to strings and produce a flurry of notes from Vivaldi’s A Minor violin concerto. Vivaldi’s concerto is popular due to its vibrancy, it makes you eager to get up and dance. But, the first note I produced was cruel to Vivaldi – it was a delivery that was dead on arrival. “SHHH!” The Mrs was quick to caution me. I quickly handed the beautiful violin to Second Son. “Here, take it off my hands before they shoo me away,” I said. For the record, I did not bid for the violin. Their estimate price was USD50,000. The chap never followed up with me about bidding. I think he knew the truth about me when he heard the “shhhh” and the “shoo” in the room. Or, maybe he was annoyed I broke the G string.

Guess It’s Gas And Hot Air

There was a fair bit of gloating this week. Alas, for me it was more about bloating. We (humans) landed on Mars again a few days ago. I couldn’t stop marvelling at the amazing intelligence we showed in not only successfully reaching the planet but also precisely manoeuvring the rover, with a drone on its belly, to land safely and gently on the red soil. Ok, Man didn’t land there but a man-made machine did. I decided there and then the world ought to stop looking for intelligence out there in space. We have it in spades here on Earth! It was a thrill to watch the NASA team congratulate themselves – there were fist-bumps and celebratory raised hands; the absence of hugs and kisses and handshakes was reassuring, again a sign of intelligence in the room. If the Americans were gloating, they truly deserve to enjoy that euphoric moment. It was pleasing for me to witness their relief and joy at the same time. Relief, because anything could have easily gone awry, a loose screw could have wiped out the multi-billion dollar mission. Joy, because this was a magnificent example of the intelligence of mankind and our ability to become the creator of another form of intelligence, an even more powerful one that is artificial (non organic). Unfortunately, the Americans were also guilty of gloating despicably this week. Not by NASA but by their tech giant, Facebook. Google was surprisingly well-behaved after their early hot-air and bluster, quick to sit down and negotiate a deal with the major media organisations here. Google threatened to withdraw their search engine from Australia, but we all know the billions they make from us – they weren’t ever going to walk away from this gold mine. I think it is fair and reasonable for these digital bullies to pay for the news content they use, right? After all, their annual turnover dwarf many a country’s GDP. Australia’s news media code is designed to mandate the digital platforms to pay the local media companies for using their news content. It is yet to become law but Google has already struck up a deal with the big media companies. As with everything, there is always the good and bad sides. This deal will of course entrench Rupert Murdoch’s vice-like grip on Australian news. His Sky News and The Australian are likely to follow their big American cousin, the super conservative TV station Fox News, and shamelessly promote “alternative facts”. Kevin Rudd this week revealed he was afraid of Murdoch whilst he was the Aussie PM. An old man he may be, but to make the most powerful man on the land cower with fear? That’s sinister and dark; it’s dangerous when one man can exert so much power and influence over the world. Murdoch has become too powerful when the world no longer knows if the news he broadcasts are true or fake.

Google got their maths right, coughing up a few million dollars to rake in billions from Australians but Facebook, on the other hand, have shown their tenacity to bully a middle-power sovereign country that is Australia. Not only have they refused to sit down and negotiate, they spitefully pulled all news from their platform two days ago. This is before the code is even law! A stern message to the Upper House no doubt but the senators didn’t blink. Facebook didn’t think carefully, and are now in damage control mode to defend their decision against claims of promoting fake news yet silencing real news that the community rely on, e.g. health and emergency news on natural disasters and bushfires. I guess the whole world is watching intently on how they too can follow suit and extract some payments from these digital behemoths. The hot-air blowing from Facebook will be curtailed soon enough. They have got away from this thieving for too long.

The other big news coming out of Canberra this week is also a lot of hot air. The matter is most unfortunate, of course, but for the PM’s office to deny any knowledge of the rape that occurred in March 2019 beggars belief. The revelation of a text message from a senior staff of the PM’s office in response to the complaint back then is damning. That it took almost two years ago for the victim to reveal the alleged rape is symptomatic of the many problems victims face or feel they are pressured with. Be it social stigma, self blame or guilty conscience, doubts about what actually happened or just simply peer pressure or pressure from the top. The victim, Brittany Higgins, was reportedly too drunk to sign herself into the parliament building on the night of the alleged rape. The cancel culture may attack me for saying this but I have to ask why would a young lady get so drunk and follow a man to a building he had no right of access to? Was she so intoxicated that she couldn’t ask to be dropped off home instead by a friend? If so, why did she let herself get to that stupor? If one hops into a mud bath, should one be shocked to find oneself caked in mud after? If a girl allowed herself to be so drunk that she had no control of her senses, and plonked herself on a sofa in a room alone with a man she hardly knew, is it reasonable to expect the man not to be aroused and think of sex? Men are aroused almost every minute of the day! How is a man to curb his natural instincts by telling himself she isn’t ready for sex when the woman seemed willing and ready all night? Or convince himself whilst in an inebriated state that the woman who had spent the whole boozy night out with him that she didn’t want sex? Should he be judged criminally if he guessed wrongly about her intentions? Is a “No” given midway during sex a “No or maybe”? In retail a “change of mind” is no valid case for a refund, but what about a “change of mind” during sex when the act is a lot more intense, exciting or even frenzied? Isn’t that what they both sought from the effects of alcohol? To curb their inhibitions? The common explanation given by victims is that they were too drunk to give consent. What if the offenders were to use their state of drunkenness as an excuse – they were too drunk to know that consent was not given? Higgins has since accused the PM of “victim blaming”. It is wonderful that she came forward and “outed” her rapist – she said her inspiration came from Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year, a sexual assault survivor and advocate. But, there is a big difference between advocating for victims who have been abused and blaming others for other reasons. Is it acceptable that a victim can keep it quiet for two years after declining the invitation by her boss, a cabinet minister, to lodge a police report at the time and instead, turns around and points her finger at others for not doing “enough” to support her? It isn’t so much as victim blaming but victim blaming others, I reckon. In Chinese parlance, I will say “fang pi” 放屁 or simply, go fart.

Talking about farts…. some of my friends engaged in a late night conversation earlier this week on the topic of farts. It isn’t a disgusting subject, to be truthful, since many of us suffer from a bloated tummy. Why do we have so much gas? It could be from the beans, nuts and wholemeal oats we eat, I suppose. Lately, I suspect it could be the lactose from milk. Maybe, it is simply the case that I should go to the toilet more often. It is common sense that the longer we leave the food waste inside our colon, the more pungent the gas will be.

I keep telling The Mrs we are eating too much raw vegetables – that’s where my farts come from.

When we were kids, we used to recite this hokkien poem loudly:

Ting tong tiang
Ting tong tiang

Who finished his meal and did a foul fart? Chui chui chiak par pang phooi chau hiam hiam
 Eat a dead chicken without cleaning its intestines
Chiak sie kay boh liam tor

Eat a rat’s tail without cleaning the dirt Chiak ngiau chu boey boh cheng toh

Run to the lane behind and take off your pants Chow ki arh boey lor thau kor

I am encouraged by the polymath, Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States. He said we should fart proudly. But, how can we when we don’t know if it will be a silent one or loud one? How can we when we don’t ever know what will come out? Will it be that sweet lemony fragrance or the tropical mango one? Mine is usually of another tropical variety even though I haven’t been to Malaysia for two years. It is that dreaded rotting durian smell that still explodes from my system. Why, I cannot say since durian is something we hardly find here, and even if we did, it is so expensive we tend to just walk past the aisle in the shop. I reckon a fart is the one thing even the most powerful and feared president or dictator should be afraid of. They may dress themselves in a five-star general’s outfit or wear the most expensive Italian suit, but let out publicly one smelly fart that they couldn’t control its volume and it will be enough to bring anyone who pretends to be our superior down to our level or lower. I can say I am usually a considerate person and I try to do all my flatulence in the bathroom. But my problem is I find it hard to let them out whilst my body is in a vertical position. The ideal position for me is when I’m lying on my back. I guess what I am trying to say is that I tend to fart when I’m lying down in bed. It is quite exasperating for me to sit on the toilet seat and try my utmost to expel the gas from within before going to bed. It usually doesn’t work. It is frustratingly typical that when I give up after a big effort, the urge comes as soon as I lay flat next to The Mrs. The question I no longer ask myself is do I leave the bed and try again in the bathroom. No point, since I can’t do it sitting or standing in there. On the rare occasion that it did, the stench would stubbornly follow me back to my bed anyway. No amount of fanning it inside the bathroom would it be dissuaded from joining me in the main room. That is how clingy my farts are to me. So it seems every night The Mrs has to put up with the explosions that come soon after I tuck myself in. The most frequent question she asks me as soon as I join her in bed is “Did you just fart?” You know me, I do not answer stupid questions. She should know it wasn’t her and since there are always just the two of us, why ask me if I did it. Her question simply did not need to be answered, right? If it is about the pungent gas, there is no need to guess.

Let every fart count as a peak of thunder for liberty. Let every fart remind the nation of how much it has let pass out of its control. It is a small gesture, but one that can be very effective – especially in a large crowd. So fart, and if you must, fart often. But always fart without apology. Fart for freedom, fart for liberty – and fart proudly.

-Benjamin Franklin (as related to me by Choon Chee)

A Bull In The Year Of The Ox

Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! These are words I haven’t uttered since I was growing up in Penang in the 70’s. These are Chinese New Year wishes in hokkien. Most cultures wish for happiness for the coming new year. So, it is common to wish one another Happy New Year. But, we Chinese first and foremost will wish one another prosperity. Gong Xi Fa Cai in mandarin, Keong Hee Huat Chye in hokkien, Gung Hei Fatt Choy in cantonese, Gung Xi Fa Jei in shanghainese. They all mean the same, congratulations on your prosperity. Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! is about wishing one another prosperity and red-hot success. ‘Gain more wealth’ is not about happiness, so please wish me Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐) instead. When a sage or a monk talks about the search for happiness, they inevitably steer (pardon the pun) us in the direction of inner peace and contentment. Personally, I have done well and got through 2020 unscathed. The pandemic still rages on all over the world but here in Adelaide, life feels very much like pre-pandemic days – normal. We have been very lucky – no mask-wearing or social-distancing necessary. The year of the Ox starts from 12th February or 12022021, a palindrome. Not surprisingly, some of my Chinese friends trumpet that as an auspicious sign of a prosperous year ahead. Fair enough, may the gods grant us prosperity. We will ask for happiness later. Although I find it difficult to connect happiness with the ox. After all, what is an ox but an adult steer? A male calf becomes a steer after being castrated. Why are animals castrated unless you want them to be easily controlled? I wouldn’t be happy if I were castrated. I wouldn’t like to be easily controlled. If you had a choice, wouldn’t you prefer to be called a bull rather than an ox? Why do Westerners name this year the ox and not the bull? The punter celebrates when it is a bull sharemarket. We would not call any market an ox market unless we are selling oxen, perhaps. We describe our euphoric sentiments as bullish and ascribe masculine words such as stallion, stud or bull to our virile strong men. We do not connect happiness to a word that implies castration. Never an ox. You want a happy year, call it the Year of the Bull. Don’t call it the Year of the Ox. Or, follow the Chinese. Avoid gender-specific words. 牛 Gu in hokkien, Niu in mandarin.

Happiness has come to me early in the Year of the Bull. On the very first day, in fact. No, it isn’t inner peace I found. Neither is it from contentment. Don’t mind me, I am just being facetious. The sage is right, of course. We can’t be truly happy without inner peace and contentment. Those are the foundation slabs without which our temple of happiness cannot be built. I picked up my first violin at age 9. Br. Michael picked it for me. Br. Michael, always in his Lasallian white long robes, was my school music teacher and school orchestra conductor. The orange-red violin was a cheap mass-produced one from China. I suspected it was from a sweat-shop – it was still sweating from a badly coated varnish. But, he knew that was all I deserved. I suppose he could tell from my school shoes. You know the ones. They are white all-rubber shoes that weren’t as white as the white canvas shoes that the other boys wore. The ones that turned slightly yellowish over time. Or, maybe he noticed my school uniform. You know the ones. Two sizes bigger so they would last an extra few years. My socks were hand-me-downs from Pa, overly long and thick. They had to be folded multiple times and tightened with rubber bands around my ankles. Or, maybe he noticed the absent school tie – the one I couldn’t afford. I was never selected to be a class monitor or a school prefect. I didn’t know why then, but this is the excuse I have just told myself. No school tie, no worries, we won’t make you a somebody. You do not get picked to be a monitor, you get picked on by a monitor. My second violin arrived quickly, just a year later after I had proven to my parents I was serious about playing the violin. Wise parents – they knew not to fork out any more money until they were convinced it wasn’t just a fad that would vanish like the morning dew. Wiser parents – they let Big Sis buy it for me. Big Sis happened to have a friend’s mother who would be visiting from London. So she asked the friend, a violinist, to pick a “good one” from a violin shop in London. An opportunity not to be missed – a free delivery from London! Big Sis was thrilled by it. I was thrilled with it. It possessed the most important thing – volume. The one thing I thought would impress everybody, a BIG sound. I didn’t know about the importance of tonal qualities such as richness, depth, warmth, brightness, softness, brilliance, lyrical colours, etc, etc. I just wanted it to be powerful. A loud tone does not mean it has a carrying sound, but I didn’t plan to be a soloist who must be heard in the last rows of the concert hall. I was happy, I could not “out-play” my friends but I could drown them out with my power. I was very proud to own that violin. When First Son outgrew his 3/4 size violin, he inherited my pride and joy, a Matthias Rudemann. Please do not Google it. It will say there aren’t many great matches for your search – which is a lie. There is not a single result. It was a German-made, but the truth be told, the Germans are not known for their violin-making.

The great luthiers were Italians. The word “luthier” is originally French, from the word lute. Today, luthiers make stringed instruments that are bowed or plucked, e.g. violins, cellos, guitars. A great French luthier was Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. An outstanding 19th century luthier, he made over 3,000 instruments. Folks, if you have some spare cash to invest, this is the one I would recommend – a J.B. Vuillaume violin or cello. He is the real deal, yet somewhat still not priced out of the stratosphere. In October 2019, his 1845 cello, a copy of Duport Strad, sold for GBP 350,000. That price is just for a very good copy of a Strad. A real Strad is beyond my reach. Strad is of course short for Stradivari. His most famous violin, “The Messiah” was made in 1716. It is famous also for being hardly played. Its claim to fame is probably its price, a lofty USD 20 million a few years ago. Every layman would have heard of the name Strad – it would not be wrong to say Stradivari was the most famous of all. He came from Cremona, Italy. The other big names from the Cremona School during 17th-18th century are Amati, Guarneri and Bergonzi. The earlier great makers came from the Brescian School – names such as da Salo, Ruggieri and Maggini. The 18th century also produced two other important schools. One is known as the Milanese School which included famous makers such as Grancino, Testore and Landolfi, and the other is the Venetian School with big-name makers such as Montagnana, Guadagnini and Tononi.

This brings me to talk about my dream. I have long dreamt of owning a Strad. The closest I got was my 3-year subscription to The Strad, a monthly publication that covered anything and everyone concerning stringed instruments. I have measured my investment returns in real estate and share portfolios but they come well short against a hypothetical investment in a Stradivarius. The monetary return can be calculated but what is often missed is the pleasure of owning a piece of fine art. The joy of admiring beauty. The aesthetic beauty created by an artist or a master craftsman is to be marvelled at. The exquisite sounds that can emanate from it. It is a treasure that will continually give pleasure for generations to come. That is the true value. I have always had my heart set on a Stradivarius yet when the opportunity was presented to me last week, I chose another. What does that say about me? Fickle? Confused? Idiotic, perhaps. Someone who does not really know what (or who) he wants? Sorry, Stradivari. I suppose you have been so unattainable I want it to remain so. A son introduced me to the magnificent craftsmanship of another fine Italian maker. A modern-day master. His name is Paolo Vettori of Florence. This maker is as good as they come in terms of his woodworking and varnishing finesse, but he has one added advantage. He can still source the best “ancient” wood, even if it means acquiring them from used timber beams from old mansions. These days, no one can make a wild claim and get away with it. Dendrochronology is so advanced the experts can tell if instruments are made from the same log of wood. Tree rings with the dark and light areas tell us the age of the wood and also reveal the environmental conditions in which the tree lived – key factors that can determine the quality of the sound from the wood. When I saw Paolo Vettori’s copy of a Guarneri Del Gesù violin, I decided that is the one for me. I am finally realising a dream from a long time ago. A dream I saw in my mind whilst playing at the back row of an amateur orchestra in Penang next to Mr Yeoh, a bald-headed remisier during the day but a solo violinist in his dreams. Fondly known as “Kana-thau” or “Olive head”, Mr Yeoh owned a beautiful Italian violin that was so very precious to him that he slept with it wrapped under the satin sheets. But the sounds they made together were not so beautiful. His teacher should have corrected his wobbly vibrato. But hey, his passion for music and his obvious love for his instrument taught me a violin can be loved as tenderly as a woman, and great music is for all ages. Mr Yeoh, rest in peace and may your violin still be lovingly caressed in your arms in heaven.

No bull, but I am so very happy to know Paolo Vettori will be making me a copy of 1744 Guarneri Del Gesù ‘Ole Bull’. I hope she will turn out totally the way I have imagined her to be. I can’t wait to test her G-string or caress her slender neck with my left hand whilst running my fingers along it. The one thing I won’t do is tightly grip her throat. Her tone from her rounded F-holes will no doubt be alluring. The turns of her scroll flare outward when looking at her front or back, quite typical of a late Del Gesù. Her two-piece back will be revealing to all who want to take a peep and her arching, hopefully full and curvaceous, will flatten in the centre. She isn’t a cello, so although I can’t squeeze her between my legs, I can surely hold her comfortably between my chin and neck. Her body is surprisingly compact, measuring an ample 35.2cm but it is her sexy curves that will capture my attention. Those curves are accentuated by a slimmer upper bouts and more rounded lower bouts. Her C-bout ribs are said to be attractive, but I have never formed a penchant for ribs. I will need to practise my “finger exercises” to improve my fingering technique on her. Her purfling should be inlaid in a neatly formed channel, the white section is probably maple – wouldn’t that just make her purr? I have not considered getting a new bow yet. I’m still pleased with the stick I have. This is indeed a happy Year of the Bull! Heng Ah! Ong Ah!

My Matthias Rudemann violin

If IF Works, Why FI?

I first heard about IF in the BBC programme, Trust Me I’m a Doctor, hosted by Michael Mosley. It changed me forever. IF. It is something so simple and free! Proponents of Intermittent Fasting (IF) have no products to sell to us, there is no buck for them at the end of it. It is not a “you-beaut” low fat diet fad that will see us sign up to an expensive weight loss programme that limits our daily calorie intake with a menu that is professionally prepared by an expert dietitian. No, it is absolutely free. Mosley promoted a 5:2 method, eat “normally” for five days and restrict our daily calorie intake to 500 for women or 600 for men for the following two days. Did I say simple? That was in 2015, he could still get away with being “sexist”. Today, we don’t even know who is male or female, maybe some can be male and female at the time of their choosing. Anyway, I was too lazy to figure out what would equate to 600 calories a day. It is too hard for me if I need to weigh and measure what I eat. So, I chose the 16:8 method instead. Fast for 16 hours and limit my eating time to the remaining 8 hours of the day. Although it was only a small group that did the trial, Michael Mosley found that those who were on IF during that short period of 12 weeks reduced both their blood sugar level and LDL cholesterol. My dear father lost a limb to Type 2 diabetes. Pa suffered from cardiovascular problems too – his mobility was terribly reduced by the mini strokes he suffered after his recovery from the first stroke, a major one that left him briefly paralysed. I didn’t want these hereditary defects to cut me down if there are options to reduce the risks. I want to avoid being bed-ridden like Pa was in the last two years of his life. I dislike taking drugs – long-term use of any drug will have its side effects. If IF can do it for me, then it will be a life-changing lifestyle for me. And it has been life-changing. The moon face I had, well, that’s gone. I hated it from my 40’s right through to my late-50’s but it wouldn’t go away. A round and bloated face accentuated my slit eyes and made them appear even more beady. Any cartoonist would have happily picked my face as the perfect example to illustrate the typical China-man. I think you’ll know what I mean, you won’t need me to dig out an old photo to show you. Goodbye, moon face. Goodbye, beer belly. I didn’t have a ginormous gut but it was ugly enough to turn anyone off. A small beer gut would not be revolting if I had a Thor-like stature to hide it. My wardrobe was therefore limited to loose clothing only. During the prime of my life, I could not wear body-hugging muscle-fit shirts. I looked like a perennial footballer except the ball was under my shirt. Well, I am pleased to report that IF has got rid of the ball – the bump that made me look ridiculously pregnant has finally gone. I am now able to walk into my office looking a million bucks – a svelte bloke in slim-fit long-sleeved Lululemon top with long-flowing hair blowing in the wind.

Rob said I look young, for my age. Urghh, he didn’t have to add those last three words. If I dyed my hair black, I still cannot hide my age these days. My unruly facial hair below my chin has turned all white. Never mind, those looking at me from behind will still be fooled by my gait, posture and slim body with a BMI of 22. Folks, it is no challenge really. IF is so simple I can’t understand what the fuss is about. I can’t understand why many people think it is too hard to start or to stay the course. Some say I’m foolish to miss out on breakfast, it being “the most important meal of the day.” One doctor even briefly sowed doubts in my mind by saying the science doesn’t prove it – sure, fasting may work in the lab for rats only. But, I knew better. I had read up on Dr Yoshinori Ohsumi’s work, not that I can fully understand the science he promulgated to win the 2016 Noble Prize for Physiology or Medicine. All I needed to understand was that we need to let our body rest when our body clock requires us to. When we rest, our stomach should be relatively empty to allow our digestive system to also rest. The mantra, eat regularly but in small amounts, is no good if it means we eat all the time.

For most of my life, I lived that way. I ate regularly even after a full meal. I loved to snack – an ice-cream cone, peanuts or Smiths crisps during TV time after dinner. TV viewing was a nightly habit before Netflix became a norm. These days, free-to-air TV time takes up 30 minutes of my life, if that. I can’t see how the TV channels can survive for much longer at this rate. Who watches TV these days? It’s all about HBO, Disney, Stan and Netflix. After a movie, it wasn’t unusual for me to cook myself a packet of duck-flavoured instant noodles or partake in The Mrs’ very wonderful “pei dun choak” or “century egg and pork mince rice porridge”. There was never ever a moment when the larder was empty – a cup of hot milky Milo was my “nightcap” if the fridge was bare. Otherwise, Chinatown was only a few minutes away and a Pizza Hut delivery even more effortless with a simple phone call. It has been four years since I started IF. I don’t count my daily calories because I don’t know how to. I can’t be bothered to figure out how many calories is in a piece of beef rendang or a handful of my favourite Garuda roasted groundnuts. My regime is easy going, I eat as much as I like within the 8 hours my clock allows me to eat. Yes, I do keep to the clock in the Zero app I have in my phone. The Zero app is free too, so adhering to this discipline is free. No membership fees, no specially formulated diet for me. When a thing is free, it cannot be tainted by the evils of money. There is nothing for the merchants to sell to us. No money to be made, no ulterior motive. It is truly practised for our own health and well-being. Fasting activates autophagy after 16 hours and that encourages cell regeneration and therefore promotes better health. Cell regeneration equates to slowing down the ageing process. I hope I got that right, Dr Ohsumi. Well, I hope you got it right too, Dr Ohsumi.

I have been doing IF for 4 years. The Zero app has given me a lot of medals. I don’t see why they need to reward their users for their personal achievements. We don’t need this extra incentive! Rob, a work colleague of mine has started to practise IF also. This is his 4th week. A little blip compared to my 4 years. But take a look at him today! The transformation in his physical appearance is no small blip; it is massive! He looks amazingly good today compared with a mere 3 months ago. I now call him the Italian Stallion at work. I think he appreciates it – there is a bit of Rocky Balboa in every Italian who is fit, strong and virile. He used to look a bit on the unhealthy side and owned a huge double chin which detracted from his otherwise good looks. I could have sworn that Rob did not have a neck when he came for his first job interview. I saw him walk into my office with a laboured gait after struggling up a short flight of steps. I had to wait for him to collect his breath before he could speak. He left a faint hint of an ashtray in the air after the interview. For a weekend surfer, he looked weakened and was surprisingly unfit. But, that was many moons ago. Look at him 3 months ago – he was still without a neck and his smile was unintentionally turned into a smug due to his puffy cheeks. Just prior to starting IF, he changed his eating habits. No more beer, sweets, sugar and wheat carbs. For an Italian to say no to a mountain of pasta and pizza for dinner would have been difficult but so far, he has stuck to his new discipline. Daily 2-3 km walks have become more enjoyable as the routine sets in. Today, he looks a lot younger; his face is radiant with a healthy glow. His sagging jowls have incredibly disappeared enabling his smiles to flash sweetly with sincerity. His eyes are no longer buried by fat around his eye bags, and they are free to reveal the inner warmth and kindness of his soul. I seriously think he needs to change his whole wardrobe. His clothes don’t fit him so well now. Today, he would not look out of place queueing to get in to a rave party for uni students. Yeah, he has shaven years off his age and his newfound youthfulness now happily bears the mark of a reborn man whose confidence and assuredness will deliver him more rewards than the improved health and fitness he has already gained. Rob, you are a wonderful role model for those who harbour any doubts that IF works. I am so pleased to see the huge improvements you have made to your own well-being. You are such a big inspiration to everyone around you. I suspect our work colleagues will be thinking they want to achieve the weight loss that you have made and the health benefits you have gained. Please continue to make them jealous!

Rob has a healthy glow and exudes a picture of health

Fuh, the YouTuber who calls himself Penang AA Cook, is a food lover. Yet, he has managed to lose 8kg since he learned about IF from one of our chats 2 years ago. He shares many photos of the food he cooks at home. I have to say it is amazing he has lost weight rather than put on weight, the amount of rich food he eats daily. Fuh practises fasting, he reckons dieting is a lot less effective. Those who diet tend to gain back their weight because the sacrifice is too much to bear for an extended period. People don’t want to miss out on the foods they enjoy. With IF, we can still enjoy the food we like without gaining weight. https://youtube.com/channel/UC5KMJTeAcBI-0mzea9tN1qA

Fuh, looking a lot less full after IF

If IF works so well, why have some people around me jettisoned their resolve to continue? Some are so cynical they do not even make an attempt to fast even though they can’t hide their body fat. A niece has been the most disappointing. Having lost some 20 kg, she inexplicably stopped IF and her weight has crept back up to over 85 kg. It won’t surprise me if she went back up to her original weight of 99 kg. She tells us she fasts intermittently (FI). So my question is if IF works, why FI?

Tennis with Murray?

Man, Are We United?

Manchester United, the football team I have barracked for since I was a young boy, lost this week to the bottom-of-the-table dweller. Sheffield United, by all accounts, were not expected to win. After all, they had won just one match at the half-way point of the season. Man United had to win, to cement themselves as title contenders – a title they last won in 2013. Yeah, that is a long time ago, for a great club. But, they lost when they were supposed to win easily. Typical of them. The way they have been playing for the past few seasons isn’t the way true champions play. Unless they think they are playing yo-yo, up and down, and up and down again. The Man United fan club in my chat group is named the Fuanclub – Fuan being the die-hard fan who is the most vocal. The most parochial. The one with the blinkers on, I say. No ifs no buts, a no-nonsense man. To belong in his club, you have to be absolutely biased for the team. You have to be absolutely positive, even when they are losing. Even when they are losing when they should be winning by a comfortable margin. You make an honest remark about a sloppy pass or share the poor stats of Anthony Martial, their No. 9 striker and daggers will fly at you. No negative comments are allowed! NO BAD VIBES, he will shout at you. Well, no one else will dare to be honest with Fuan around. So, all the daggers are aimed at me, an easy target due to my boisterous remarks. The red cards are flashed at me – OUT! Get off the field. NO BAD VIBES, he yells at me. Yeah, I have been red-carded so often I think I have copped a lifetime ban from the Fuanclub. To be fair, the others do occasionally voice their frustrations at certain players or at their lack of urgency and intensity. It may not be far off the mark to say Man United are the most frustrating team to support. They have fantastic players but these young millionaires don’t often turn up to play. They give the impression they need to just amble about for the first half before showing up to kick their opposition after the interval. Fuan is willing to overlook all the negatives of the team – that is what a loyal fan does. But, I am not made like that. After all, I cry out “urghh” in disgust when I write about us humans. The ugly earthlings. Urghhlings. There are so many negatives about humans that the some of the ugly traits appear during a football match. The brutal tackles, some career-ending. The “dives” to win a free-kick or a penalty. The referee whose blatantly wrong decisions that changed the results of a game were so obvious we had to ask if he had been bought by some online gambling consortium. The feigning of an injury to sway the ref’s mind and flash the red card at the opponent. The lazy millionaire players who do not give their 100% in every match.

Fuan is a caring friend. We have been friends since 1965. After the Man United loss earlier this week, he reminded me to be positive. I know, I know. A positive state of mind is not only good for me, it benefits everyone around me also. Who doesn’t want sunshine? Who would walk away from laughter? Who would avoid happiness and a positive outlook? My world will be a better place, he assured me.

First Son suggested yesterday I should change what I write about. After all, “Urghhlings” can only be about the ugly nature of humans. As a writer, if I am only looking at the negative aspects of life and at the ugliness of people generally, will I not miss out on the many positives? Am I not focusing purely on the bad stuff people do or say? Will this constant looking out for negativity in life eventually affect my mental health? But, the truth of the matter is that I do not even need to search for the negatives! They are simply everywhere, every day! I see them often since I work in retail and for decades, I have witnessed the many ugly tricks the customers do to gain a refund or discount or a free replacement.

Am I crazy to be looking at the negatives rather than the positives? I should feel lucky. To have Fuan and now First Son both reminding me to look at the positive side of everything and everyone. Something has to be clearly wrong with me for both to be so forward with me just two days apart. This is serious, I told myself. No one had ever come to me to spruik the benefits of being a positive person. For two people far away on opposite sides of the world and unknown to each other to come forward on the same week to encourage me to be a positive person tells me very loudly that I have a problem. What has happened to me? Why have I become like this? So negative. Have I always lived with this negative mindset? Am I prone to looking at the dark side rather than the bright side? When did I become this cynical? Petty, I am sure someone recently said. Was I born this way? What does it matter – why ask so many questions? Just be aware and change for the better, right? I like to think I’m analytical. Find out when and why I became this annoying person with these unwelcome traits and then nip the problem so I can fix these issues for good? But, I should be careful not to be too defensive or be overly sensitive. It sounds bad that I am considered a poor sport. A bad loser. A toxic person. A grouch. A whinger. That can’t be me! I’m nothing like that. Yet, this is what they say about me. Instead of arguing against them, I chose to accept they were telling me the truth. They were reaching out. To pull me from the black hole they see me in. Have I been so out of touch of my own reality? I have long suspected I am a loser in the popularity stakes, so I told myself there is no need to be popular. There is the story about the man who tried to please everybody and ended up pleasing no one. Yeah, I won’t want to be that person. Popularity is for those who aren’t comfortable in their own skin, I reasoned to myself. Just be myself, be honest, this is who I am. Yet, here I am, finally being forced to look into the mirror today. I don’t like what I see. I am asked to consider that actually I am an urghhling because of my negative attitudes. I am petty and super critical to point out people’s faults rather than praise them for the good they have done. I whinge too readily about their flaws and scoff at their weaknesses.

Philip, a friend from my secondary school days left a forum I belong to two nights ago after I insensitively cut him down with some “facts” that challenged the source of his political views. His often-pedalled anti-Biden conspiracy theories and his vexing anti-China rhetoric bristled me. I wrote what I wrote and pressed “SEND”. So trigger-happy, so easy to press my buttons. I felt so rotten I regretted the whole night and lost precious sleep. I was truly disgusted with myself. Why did I not just let him share his views with us without interrupting him? What made me think I should question his views? Gerard, another old school mate who now resides in Ireland, comforted me by phone last night. He was thoughtful enough to call and tell me not to be tough on myself. I had just as much right to share my opinion as the other chap, Gerard said. Thank you, Gerard. You’re very kind to reach out to me to help me wash away my guilt. But it got me thinking again about myself. Why do I let out this unpleasant character that’s inside me every so often? My words are so unpalatable that an old friend would rather leave? Why couldn’t I be nice like the other 95 members in the forum? They remained silent and allowed Philip the space and time to ramble on. No, I had to be that annoying fellow who must “correct” an utterance he thinks is wrong. Now, I do accept that what I think is wrong may of course not be wrong but it doesn’t stop me from “correcting” it. That makes me a lousy friend to spend time with, I do get it. I am fully aware of my character flaws, yet why do I carry on with such bad behaviour? Why can’t I be a better person? It seems so easy, just be nicer, friendlier and kinder! Smile and the world smiles at you. Look out for the positives and everyone will enjoy your company. Be more agreeable. That is happiness, right?! Be more understanding, less judgemental and definitely try to be more forgiving. I have read Dale Carnegie’s very influential book, How To Win Friends And Influence People. So, why haven’t I improved myself? Why aren’t I popular with friends and family? His proposals sounded so easy to adopt at the time. Six easy ways to make people like me. Be genuinely interested in other people. Smile. Remind myself that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound. Be a good listener. Focus on the other person’s interests. Make the other person feel important, but do it sincerely.

I will try and balance my views with some positive things which happen around me. My world is not all negative. Not all earthlings are urghhlings. My blogs aren’t all negative, I defended myself. I write about Murray, my son’s dog! Murray is the loveliest and happiest personality around me. He exudes unquestioned loyalty and implicit trust in me. He teaches me unconditional love and shows unbridled joy at my slightest attention at him. He is a treasure trove of fun to be with.

I think it was my management training early in my career that made me into who I am. We called it “Management by Exception”. We produced reports that highlight the inefficiencies, the deadwood, and the weaknesses in the system. We sought out the bad to fix them and if we could not fix them, we got rid of them. We left the good ones alone – if it ain’t broken, don’t change it. The working cogs of the wheel do not need changing. We said thank you to the good workers, but our focus was always on the negative ones. Good employees received praises and bonuses, but they also heard the honest negative feedback from me. Bad employees did not last long. I think we become that person in our job, and I have been doing mine for a lifetime. Managing by exception invariably means looking out for and focusing on negatives to get rid of in the business. I have become that person who focuses on negatives. This is certainly true even during a football match. I hurl criticisms at the Man United players with the lazy strides, or those defenders whose feet are flat on the ground when the opposition striker scores and especially at Anthony Martial who too often kicks the ball straight back out to his team-mate who had just executed a slick pass to him inside the 18-yard box. I have been my own boss for so long I have become dictatorial. “It is always your way or the highway,” a close relative said of me last week. Sure, I do listen to other opinions, but the final decisions had always been mine to make. That must make it very difficult for people close to me to even breathe! Sadly and belatedly, I am realising that is the price I am paying for my “success”. I have become that urghhling whose company no one enjoys. Petty, defensive, depressing. Despicable and therefore, often ostracised. A boss has to make the decisions but he does not need to be bossy.

Livid About Covid

Last night was my first outing with friends since January 24 2020. That was the day Covid-19 arrived in Australia. I gotta say I was scared. Covid changed me, and for that, I was livid. Livid about the virus, I suppose. Livid about Covid. Those who know me know I can’t be easily changed. “Stubborn as a mule!” “You’re so annoying!” “You’re behaving like an old fart!” “Do you ever listen to yourself? You’re so ridiculous!” “So fixed like an old tree – be more flexible!” All these hurtful words have been hurled at me at one time or another. The stubborn bit – many times! Yet, this little bugger that our eyes cannot see has changed me. I was afraid last night. It was foreign for me to feel tense. The foreboding, the uncertainty. Worryingly, I felt awkward amongst my friends. Little Sis was there too with her hubby. The Mrs sat next to her. I wondered if they felt the trepidation rising in me. I felt like screaming. I almost raised my voice, wanting to ask Chip, who was next to me if he had any Ativan on him. Kalma, Xanax? Anything to calm me down. I asked for a beer instead. That was the first time in my life, I felt anxiety. It agitated my senses. It disrupted my peace. It was a mild panic attack, I suppose. Now, I know how it feels. A long time ago, The Mrs had one. In the middle of my deep sleep. She brought me back to reality with a loud shriek for help and a brutish slap on my arm. She demanded to be taken to the hospital, so real was her fear of dying. Her reality was of course not real. It was just chemicals in her brain that made her panic. Last night, I almost froze as well. It was a warm and very muggy night, after a scorching afternoon. My mind was travelling at a crazy speed, in all directions. Everything was a blur, the messages I formed mentally did not make sense. The idle chit-chat at my table was just a murmur. Did the old men stutter? Or did they mutter amongst themselves at things inconsequential? I abruptly stood up, with the sole intention of leaving. Sitting down placidly and amicably was not an option. Chip looked up with a frown. I did not respond to his enquiring eyebrow. Little Sis’s hubby ignored me, as he always does. It was a sweet moment to cherish, to be ignored at such a time. But, Chip would not let me off. “Hey, this isn’t a Xaverian thing to do,”he chided me. Chip and I are from the same school, St. Xavier’s in Penang. The other two old men in front of me were schoolmates from our rival school, Penang Free School (PFS). Chip sounded apologetic on my behalf. We Xaverians have no need to apologise for our table manners, but my telepathic message failed to be delivered. Chip was at his best, and he smoothed things over with the PFS boys. He asked if I was looking for the “men’s room”. Chip is always the civil one. I call a toilet a toilet. Sometimes, I call it chesuo or mao-fang (Thatched room in Mandarin). There is no need to call it a men’s room – why be gender-specific? I wanted desperately to cancel the dinner. The only thing in my mind was to find a way to storm out of the place. “Just leave! Now!” I screamed at myself. Instead, I intuitively pulled out my phone and pretended to take a few shots of my mates. “This will make our friends in Malaysia jealous,” I said out loud. These Malaysian friends are under another prolonged lockdown. What they call MCO 2.0. Weird, isn’t it? What’s the point about the decimal point? Will there be a MCO 2.1 or MCO 2.0(a) for instance? I wanted to leave right there and then. But, I couldn’t. My feet were firmly planted on the sticky floor, as if glued by chewing gum. The Mrs and I had “lompang” our way to the party. Save the environment, reduce our carbon footprint. We caught a ride with Little Sis instead. Without my own car, I felt stranded. I couldn’t leave. Even though the place scared me. It didn’t scare me on the way in. In fact, I marvelled at how much the complex had transformed. Tea Tree Plaza was a prison to me. I had a shop there from 1991 to 2013. Before last night, I had not returned to it. Why would I? 22 years being imprisoned in a small space. All 96 sq. metres of it was crammed with auto parts and accessories. After 22 years in a shop without windows and sunlight, you would expect the air to become putrid. It was. Years of obnoxious smells, made up of a lethal combination of foul farts, stinky odours of fuel additives and engine oils, and vile vapours from chemically tanned sheepskin car seat covers. I did not go into the mall to visit the location of my old shop. Let bygones be bygones. Instead, I walked briskly to the new section, an alfresco entertainment area for restaurants and bars. Marvellous to see! It reminded me of Singapore, the warm night and the expensive-looking surroundings. Very chic, I thought. Little Sis led us into the Thai restaurant, and my hands immediately turned clammy. It was the crowd. The room was packed with diners loudly gesticulating, laughing or talking over one another. The noise. It scared me. I did not like that crowded place. People were greeting one another, hugging, kissing, cheek to cheek. All that had become foreign to me. All that flooded my mind. They have forgotten about COVID-19! If the pandemic had taught me anything, it was that the world had changed forever. We have all become much more hygienic, newly alert to how bacteria and viruses contaminate our surroundings. Fist bumps or elbow bumps are the new handshakes, yet I could not see that being practised at all. We were handed thick dog-eared plastic menu folders that were bigger than A4 size. A big choice of Thai food, how exciting. But, they looked a bit greasy to me – a strong hint of being well used like old books in a library. I refused mine. The old world beckoned, the pre-Covid world. The internal bells in my head rang as if there was a busy wedding. Noisily and incessantly. So, I rejected the idea of holding the menu and thumbing through the pages that others before me had. But, the whole idea of breathing in the crowd’s combined breath was unsettling. That was when I panicked. How do I avoid the droplets and vapours from their dirty breaths? Look at them. Guffawing and cackling away, without a thought or a worry about a loitering virus. Listen to their shouting and loud conversations. Why must urghhlings talk over one another? Are they not aware that they end up shouting at each other? The bigger the volume, the bigger the droplets and the stronger they propel to all directions. Feeling trapped, I did not want to be there. I have already got accustomed to the new world. A world of fresh air and clean surroundings. One that is occupied by very few people, free of noise pollution and stinky smells. And, no virulent virus. A new world that feels safe. Peaceful. Clean. But, last night that new world collapsed. I was livid. Why did we risk our well-being? For some Thai food that tasted too sweet? That extra input of sugar into my body was unpleasant. The thought of exposing ourselves to Covid unnecessarily? Crazy!

Many countries around the world are still in strict lockdown. The virus has mutated to become much more virulent. Let us hope these variants won’t become more deadly. There has been so much suffering, so many deaths. So many unnecessary suffering and deaths. That is my point. Just this week, the U.S. finally mandated mask-wearing on federal property and on public transport and in airports. Finally! After one year into the pandemic. After 410,000 deaths. Just two nights ago, Germany finally mandated medical-grade masks, i.e. single-use 3-ply surgical masks or FFP-2 masks. Finally, they realise that many cloth masks do not guarantee against Covid – the single layer or poor design or both do not afford adequate protection. Why have so many nations coped so poorly with Covid? Why have the authorities not learn sooner from successful examples? Both China and Taiwan have done remarkably well to fight Covid. Many will disbelieve China, distrusting any announcements from the CCP as mere propaganda. So, I will look at Taiwan’s success instead and ask the West why their governments have not adopted relatively simple yet effective measures? Taiwan is similar in size to Florida, a U.S. state with a comparable population of about 25 million. So far, Taiwan has recorded 870 cases and 7 deaths whereas the American state has recorded 1.6 million cases and 25,000 deaths. Get this, 7 vs 25,000. A numbing comparison. This week, Taiwan cancelled a Chinese New Year festival after it confirmed 4 new Covid cases. FOUR! A single digit record would be a reason for a huge celebration anywhere else in the world, but for Taiwan, this has to be taken very seriously. To fight this virus effectively, we need to enforce mandatory quarantines for those coming into our country; and when there are positive cases in the community, insist on universal mask wearing and social distancing, and prompt contact tracing of confirmed cases. You do that and you will avoid the costly and draconian lockdowns. 7 vs 25,000. That is the stark reality. Too many unnecessary deaths. Such a waste of lives. Reducing lives to mere numbers is clinical and cold. These were living, breathing human beings. They once had dreams and goals. They loved and were loved. Some were their family’s pillar of strength, their purpose in life being to provide for their loved ones – they turned up for work and nothing else distracted them. Some were frontline health workers and contact tracers, the real unsung heroes whose names were unheralded and whose work were unrecognised or forgotten. Now they are gone. Sacrificed. Why? It can’t simply be the excuse that leaders didn’t accept the science or played politics to enhance their re-election prospects. What about the medical experts, cabinet ministers and law-makers behind these fools? Those sycophants and weak medical experts who misrepresented the science yet were put or left in charge of public health have to be answerable for being derelict in their duty to protect lives. It is true that some of the medical experts had their lives and those of their families threatened to make them toe the official line – that it happened to strong democratic countries in the West points to a deep and dark systematic attempt to silence the experts. Why would politicians think politics know better than science when it comes to handling a pandemic? As for those who promulgated conspiracy theories that Covid is mere bullshit to control the masses, they should be hauled to face the courts and answer to charges against humanity. What about the political leaders who failed to exercise their most basic duty, i.e. to look after the health and safety of their citizens? And those violent protesters who stormed public places to voice their personal rights against mask-wearing? These urghhlings should be denied hospital beds and medical care should they succumb to the virus they believed to be fake. I take the view that if you do not believe the virus is real, then you do not need to be treated for it. I am livid that the system will give these reckless and irresponsible people priority over the law-abiding ones or the weak and voiceless. I am livid that Covid has failed to take away the privileges of those guilty of spreading it.

The Thistle And Shtisel

Many of my friends find me prickly. Just an hour ago, a good friend from school remarked “You sure like to be pricked.” Chip has a beautiful rose garden at his sprawling home up in the hills. So, he understands one is easily pricked when standing too close to a rose bush. But, who likes to be pricked? So, he got me thinking. What on earth does he mean? I like to be pricked? Is he saying I make myself an easy target, either from my behaviour or from my words and therefore I am deserving of retaliatory remarks from them? It was never them vs us in school. I did not belong to any gang or group. Not even in the Boy Scouts, in which I was one of the early leaders. Yet, I never felt I was part of them. Nowadays, it frequently is them vs me. I am made to feel the odd one out. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I am odd. Memories of my lonely boyhood come surging back. Where is Shiny, my old faithful dog? He was a pariah pup but I did not care. He always welcomed me with a strong wagging tail. Unconditionally. He didn’t care if I was a lonely boy. The odd one. The one they loved to pick on. Shiny listened intently to all my sad stories, at times amidst the quiet sobbing. No one must know. If they knew their darts were getting through my shell, then they would feel encouraged to throw more at me. Shiny faithfully kept all my secrets. “At least the bush will reward you with a bunch of roses, Chip.” I retorted silently in my mind, but stopped myself from being argumentative to avoid the risk of him calling me something even more prickly, a thistle instead? How would I recover from that? A thistle, me? It is true I have never been a popular chap. I was grumpy before I got old. Well, maybe I was grumpy even before I got to my 20s. Within the hour of being called prickly, I was asked in another group if having oats for breakfast daily makes me grumpy. These days, our popularity can be gauged by the number of birthday wishes we get in our chat groups. Yesterday, Lak Thiang celebrated his birthday with great fanfare. He would have been on cloud nine for sure. I know I would be if I got that many “dings-dings” on my phone, all of them with a rowdy Happy Birthday message. That evening, everyone seemed to have a mini bar full of whisky at home as they toasted the birthday boy loudly and drunkenly. It was an impromptu online party, and as they started toasting and clinking their glasses, I promptly went to bed instead. I had no whisky to show them, and no whisky knowledge either. There was the usual talk about single malts, smoothness, smokiness, and age. About Scottish vs Japanese vs Irish. All so foreign to me. A good friend I grew up with, SuperBan, had a wild birthday party too, a couple of nights earlier. I added ‘super’ to his first name, as he reminded me of Superman the way he flew around the world before the pandemic. The chorus of birthday wishes for SuperBan was deafening all day and all night – he got a few more greetings the day after too. I come from a big school in Penang. My year comprised of ten classes with a class numbering over 45 students. So, one could say it is not surprising to receive many birthday greetings from such a big group. I shall not divulge the number of birthday wishes I attracted last year. There is no need to pick on old scabs. It is soothing to tell myself they don’t really know when my birthday is, so how is it surprising when no one sends me a birthday wish? I had lost touch with these school friends for over 40 years. When Greg had a motorbike accident some 6 years ago, he was bed-ridden for many weeks. What would an aged person do if he is immovable on his back in this computer age? He surfs the internet to locate long-lost friends! After Greg found me, I rediscovered my past very quickly. The names of old teachers, old friends, old haunts and old flames. The old slangs, the old Malaysian accents all returned. Asian words such as “Aiya, aiyo, lah, lor” have found their way back into my vocabulary. It is no surprise that there was an initial curiosity to reconnect with these old mates. That was over 5 years ago. I am afraid the novelty has worn off and the boredom of familiarity has crept back into our lives. Familiarity breeds contempt, I truly believe this old saying now. Hardly a day goes by without someone sending me a contemptible message. In school, I was usually the odd one in the school compound – the daft one who pretended being introspective gave people the impression that you were observant and as clever as the quiet achiever. So, when they found me and invited me to join the chat groups, I decided I won’t be daft anymore. I shan’t be that quiet boy anymore. but, you know what? Mud sticks and so does reputation. No matter how I behave now, no matter how cleverly I voice my opinion, that banner I carried as a young boy is still hoisted high above me today. I am forever that annoying idiot. I tried to change it, to tell them the idiotes isn’t the idiot. Idiotes in old Greek means a private person. The annoying one in school isn’t prickly anymore today, I heard myself say to them. But, if you let mud stick, you can’t scrape it off once it has caked hard onto their memory. Now I’m in my sixties but it is as if time has stood still for them. To them, I’m still the prickly one today. It feels strange. When I first arrived in Australia, I felt like an outsider. People seemed polite and friendly but that was just the Western way of being courteous. They asked me questions as if they were genuinely interested in where I came from. They had difficulty pronouncing my name but they repeated it badly enough times as if they really wanted to get it right. They looked at me with that funny look, as if the batik shirt I was wearing didn’t match the bad haircut I wore on my head. Come to think of it, I think they just wanted to let me know I was very different from them. I didn’t belong. I wasn’t one of them. Funnily, sometimes I feel I don’t belong in my circle of school friends too. They pick on me and me only. They “red-card” me during boisterous football matches. At first, I was happy. I wrongly assumed I finally belong to a club. Our Man-United fan club is aptly named “MU Fuanclub”, since Fuan (another boyhood friend) assumes chairmanship of the club. But, I have been the only one “sent off” so many times during games. The others who often voice their frustrations during matches have yet to be flashed a “yellow card”. Yeah, not even a warning. Mind you, the red cards handed to me all happened to be in games that MU lost. Yeah, some of the fans are sore losers – a fair deduction, I may add. These guys could not accept any in-depth analysis of how the games were lost. “NO BAD VIBES!” is their club motto. Can’t they see it is positive to look at the players’ negatives so their problems can be fixed by the coach? Somehow, they see me as an importunate bloke whose criticisms of the players are not conducive to a winning formula. No matter, I am just as happy to watch the matches alone. It should not matter anymore, right? We all have our own family, our own dreams, our own history. It should not hurt anymore if we feel we don’t belong outside all that. They hint that I make myself a big target, an easy target for them to “taroh” (Malay for attack). It is just a harmless pastime of theirs, I convinced myself a long time ago. When I was a young man, I used to feel I was in no man’s land, neither belonging to the West nor comfortable in the East. That feeling of being a foreigner seems odd for someone who has lived here for over 43 years, yet it has not escaped me that I was once accosted in a public toilet for being a “yellow Chinaman” and white rednecks also hurled abuse at me as they sped past in their rusty faded Ford Falcon and Toyota Corolla. It is no different when I return to Malaysia – I feel like a tourist rather than like a son returning to his motherland. Heck, the locals see me as a tourist too, somehow they know before I even utter a word. Maybe it is the way I struggle with the coins and notes. Maybe it is the way I tip the hawkers by the roadside.

Shiny, my loyal friend. Forgive me, you should never have been chained.

Two nights ago, The Mrs and I finished Season 2 of Shtisel. The series premiered in 2013. Make a season a year, by my simple maths, they should have finished Season 7 by now. Why hasn’t Season 3 been released yet?! I am a sucker for blockbuster movies, especially conspiracy-laden plots involving the CIA or graphic ones with blood-soaked horse heads on satin bed sheets. I can’t resist epics with amazingly creative plots such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or movies with unforgettable music such as Out of Africa (John Barry, composer), The Mission (Morricone, composer), Schindler’s List (John Williams, composer). But, Shtisel is absolutely none of that. It is low-budget, absent of a star-studded cast (or so I thought) and without any action-packed martial arts, absolutely no violence. Set in an ultra-Orthodox Geula neighbourhood in Jerusalem, the main male characters are dressed in traditional Hasidic garb, long black suits, big black hats hiding their kippahs and loosely hanging silk gartels. There is a lot of swaying and rocking when they pray. Maybe it signifies trembling before God. Their focus is on God, of course. The Jews won’t use the name of God lightly, so they will refer to Him as The Kingdom of Heaven. Every sip of water, every bit of food consumed is done after praising God first. A Bracha is recited so often in the show I ought to be able to recite it too. But the story is not a focus on The Kingdom of Heaven, but on our journey through life. The ultra-Orthodox setting just adds colour and flavour to the story. The Mrs and I felt flat and listless last night. I think she was suffering from withdrawal symptoms too, so addicted we have become to the story about a Haredi Jewish family living in a corner of Jerusalem which hitherto was as foreign to me as Mars would be. It is a totally different world where great music and art are frowned upon, and watching TV soapies is discouraged even for those living in a nursing home. So, why is Shtisel so captivating? I think it is great story-telling that a story about the everyday life of a highly devout Jewish family can captivate the attention of so many. We all have our customs, our beliefs, our taboos. Our pursuit of love be it for someone or in this case, for art, can unravel the bonds of a family when the rules are guarded too strictly. Breaking the norms often causes hurt and despair, despite their belief that God protects and loves those who praise Him. The show reminds me that with or without God, life is full of thistles for all of us and I think that is why a story like Shtisel resonates so well with me.

Wanton About Wonton

What is happening around us? I asked myself. Are we not aware how shoddy standards have become? “In what?” Wilson asked as he eyed his bowl of wonton noodles through fogged glasses. In everything! I almost screamed. It really is an assault on our senses, unprovoked, I may add. Well, let me start with your breakfast, Wilson. Just look at it, that’s not the wonton we used to have, notwithstanding the confirmation by the usually-sharp Aloysius that they are indeed current-day wontons. For decades, I would salivate at the thought of returning to Penang and re-acquaint myself with the world’s best street-foods only found in my birth place. We had fast foods well before fast food from Maccas and KFC were fads. Would I be wrong to claim that the genesis of the plethora of fast foods was the island paradise of Penang? When I was a kid, a bowl of wonton mee cost a mere 10 cents and a few short minutes’ wait despite the long queue at the school canteen. If the rotund canteen lady was in a good mood, she would even throw an extra wonton in my bowl. A big spoonful of pickled green chillies was a necessary extra at no additional cost. In those days, most of us were skinny if not scraggly. The canteen lady had to be near good food all her life to be become busty and well endowed especially around her waistline. Her wontons tasted great despite them being more skin than meat. The intoxicating smell of her soup as the rich egg noodles were bathed in it was simply divine. Her mere act of scooping soup onto the bowl often awakened my juices, so impatient was I to indulge in the imminent lust of devouring my meal. Food outside of school were of a higher standard, the higher prices dictated that. In every hawker stall we frequented, we did not have to queue for long. Somehow, those street vendors managed to churn out their delicacies without fuss or frustration. I think it is because they were truly skilled in their job, stoic and cheery with amazing goodwill despite the harsh working conditions in a hot and humid tropical environment. True professionals but alas, they were not recognised as such. No Michelin Stars were ever awarded to them. It is no surprise therefore, that they held the reins only for themselves – only a few of their next generation dared to take over their trade. What we see today is a permanent loss of those trade secrets and we end up with hawkers wantonly serving such lousy wontons. Wonton mee, aka Toktok mee in Penang on account that olden day vendors used to make Toktok sounds whilst traversing the streets to sell their nooodles, should be chewy and firm, or al dente – the yellow egg noodles cooked perfectly with a rich pork-based broth, garnished with leafy green choy-sum (Chai xin, which means vegetable heart, and therefore must be good for us) and meaty yet succulent wontons. The photo below is a terrible illustration of what I have just described. For Aloysius to confirm that those were indeed present-day wonton mee shocked me. That was a direct assault on my equilibrium that morning. How did we get to this nadir without a hint that we realise it? I feel we are all as guilty of this slide to mediocrity by condoning it, by accepting that this really is good enough. It is cheap. It is therefore ok. A good friend we call “Typhoon” pretty much summed it that way. “Penang food is good when the price is stable and the locals will sing their praises.” So, it all boils down to price. It does not matter if the noodles reeked of lye water, not even if they were starchy and soggy. It would not matter if the black sauce was a tad sweet or the green pickled chillies too sour or not crunchy. To them, the tasteless wonton was still ok as long as it represented more than a tiny morsel of meat. Wonton mee is a simple dish to cook, but in the hands of a novice, it can become a disaster very quickly. I mean, look at fried rice. It is such an easy dish to cook, right? You could pretty much throw anything into your overnight leftover rice, and cook up a storm. A bit of green peas, shrimps – raw ones or dried, it does not matter – and eggs. You love sweet corn? Sure, add some in. You crave for salted fish? Even better, just throw in a few slivers. We can’t go wrong cooking fried rice! Until I saw a couple of Youtube videos by Nigel Ng aka Uncle Roger. Was Uncle Roger too harsh on the British celebrity chefs? Nope! Haiya, the comedian tore shreds at Jamie Oliver’s fried rice. If these people dare to wantonly desecrate a simple dish such as Chinese Egg Fried Rice using a frying pan, then they deserve to be openly criticised! Where is the wok? Fried rice needs wok-hei! Chinese know all about the “breath of a wok” for stir-frying – it is in our genes for thousands of years. We know all about that energy, that extra heat to produce the slightly charred, smoky flavour that whets our appetite. The Michelin Guide tells us it is “difficult to achieve without a commercial cooking range”, but what do they know? Every Chinese home can produce “wok-hei” – like I said, it is in our genes. Jamie Oliver horrified us by using olive oil and chilly jam to fry his rice! He sizzled his spring onions “straight away” instead of using them as garnish?! We serve tofu whole, in big pieces but what did the British chef do? He destroyed his tofu as he mixed them into the rice. For us, frying rice is too easy. Many of us learned it as kids. Cooking rice is even easier. We don’t even need the “finger test” to know how much water to add to our rice. We use our eyes to measure the water level in the pot. So, why would people who don’t even know how to cook rice try and teach others how to fry rice? One of the celebrities was filmed rinsing her boiled rice in cold running water just prior to frying it. It is wantonly malicious!

This ain’t wonton mee!
A short video on a Penang Toktok mee street vendor by Penang AA Cook

When I was a young boy, I loved Nonya kueh. I did not realise how lucky I was to be born in Penang and to grow up in that culture where so many races from faraway places mingled and inter-married. Nonya kueh is uniquely a product of the intertwined Malay-Chinese culture. To me, it is a wonderful symbol of good when different cultures are able to come together and become one. These snacks or desserts are usually sweet but some are savoury. Main ingredients include glutinous rice flour, tapioca flour or mung bean flour. I prefer any kueh with pandan, coconut (grated or milk or both), and gula melaka. I left Penang in 1977 at age 18. I was clueless about the Nonya. None of my friends stepped up to say they were Nonya. Hakka? Nonya? Ya, just Chinese folk with different dialects, I thought. Yes, Yes. I was that dumb. I was not inquisitive about races. It did not matter what we were – Malays and Indians, Chinese or mixed. We all looked the same, sounded the same. We were the same, and I was sure we all loved Nonya kueh! My mum’s youngest sister, Suleh Ahyi knew I loved Nonya kueh. I think after 1977, I have had Nonya kueh in Penang twice only and on both occasions, it was Suleh Ahyi who walked to the Tanjung Bungah market to buy them for me. That is an aunty’s love, see? Ahyi has beautiful deep-set eyes. Sparkling eyes, actually. She has unusually high cheek bones and a pointy nose. Her hair was especially jet black. Without a word of a lie, I dare say Ahyi was as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn. She used to walk real fast. In 1996, I was 38. Yet, I could hardly keep up with her as she weaved in and out of the market crowd with her rattan basket clutched safely in her V-shaped arm. Thank you, Ahyi. You were really sweet to remember I love those kueh. There is a church-goer here in the eastern suburbs who makes good Seri Muka and Kueh Talam. I do not know her, so the rare morsels of kueh I get here are from Little Sis. They are friends, which reminds me I should really befriend that church-goer. I need to secure a more reliable (constant) supply of kueh. Little Sis makes very good Seri Muka and Kueh Talam too, but she is not very reliable. Besides, her supply of fresh pandan leaves has dried up. We had a harsh winter, maybe she forgot to bring her portable greenhouse inside one night. See, at least she uses fresh pandan, which is almost impossible to get here. Any serious cook will use real ingredients. Fresh ingredients. It still irks me so much that the stalls in Petaling Jaya and Singapore that I bought my last few Nonya kuehs from dared to use fake pandan essence, and not the real juice from real leaves. It is simply outrageous that they tamper with real food. Quite wanton, I say.

Little Sis‘ Bubur Cha-Cha, a Nonya coconut milk dessert

Since I am on the topic of wanton vandalism, how can I not mention the wanton attack on America’s democracy this week? The bastion of democracy itself was under threat. Suppressed people in other nations used to look to America as their saviour of their democratic rights. That is a farce, America is not the hero for democracy anymore. The U.S. Capitol, the house where their Congress meets, was stormed by Trump supporters who were eager to overturn the peoples’ votes. It was another display of the dangers of what a strong belief system can unintentionally deliver. The journey of how democracy can lead to autocracy through the unyielding pursuit of democratic rights to personal freedoms. It is this great roar of the masses who violently demand their right to choose their leader that may in the end topple a democracy. Those rednecks believe their leader’s claims that they were robbed from a rigged election, despite the 50-plus lawsuits being thrown out by the courts due to absence of evidence and in some cases, due to the admissions by Trump’s own legal teams that there were no legal and factual basis to support their claims. They blindly placed their faith on an unworthy and contemptible bloke who only cares about himself. Blind faith has dire consequences when placed on the wrong person or deity. The FBI has posted rewards for the arrest and successful prosecution of the rioters and thugs. So far, the leader of the mob has avoided arrest. I am bemused that the FBI has not recognised Trump was the culprit who incited the mob. “Be there, will be wild!” he said two weeks ago. He told them they cannot take back their country with weakness. His personal lawyer addressed the rioters and told them to “have trial by combat.” One observation that won’t go away is why was the Capitol protected by so few cops? Everyone knew there would be a mass protest that day. White supremacists from all over the country in their tens of thousands at a street protest that their leader had urged them to be wild will not be there holding candles, right? The stark contrast vetted out by police against peaceful (Black) protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations show how the rules of law and order apply differently if you were not white. Awful, a wanton suppression of their own people. A wanton attempt to steal the election by him, not from him. Under threat of being brought to justice for his major role in inciting the mob, Trump has finally agreed to a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. Many think he has conceded. But, his faithful mob thinks otherwise. They read between the lines and breathe a sigh of universal relief that their messiah has not conceded he lost. He has only agreed to a smooth transition of power (maybe, he meant in his second term). After all, didn’t he promise them “our incredible journey is only just beginning”? They want to believe him so badly they wantonly disregard the truth. Urghhlings. Yeah, Biden won. Hopefully, America too.

Patently, A Latent Talent

Happy New Year! We have finally seen the end of 2020 – for most, it was their worst year ever. The first day of a new year brings renewed hope of better things to come. Surely, it cannot get any worse! It feels like a new dawn after the wild crazed scenes from the night before. The gully winds we get here are unpredictable – they can be gentle like leaf blower vacs annoyingly blowing leaves and dirt everywhere and anywhere but on certain nights under a gibbous moon, they can transform into mad and ferocious monsters that make the gumtrees weep and shake violently and uncontrollably. The madness during the night has long gone by the time the sun breaks through from the other side of the sky. The tell-tale signs we were visited by mad and ferocious monsters during the dark hours are usually the same. Any semblance of a well-cared-for garden is erased; the quaint yard’s zen-balance is disturbed by ad hoc garden displays of broken tree branches and bare rose bushes with just a sprinkling of stubborn petals that cling onto them. The indoor folding clothesline that has become a fixture under our pergola is a regular casualty too on nights such as these. It still escapes The Mrs’ attention that indoor stands are not designed for outdoor use. By the time she wakes up, all her garments that were viciously flung to the ground have been meticulously shaken clean of any dust and dirt and hung back on the clothesline. The most annoying items for me to retrieve are the polystyrene foam boxes that The Mrs uses to cart home discarded veggies from the local grocer. Her chooks may love the veggies but those white boxes are so light they become playthings for the strong gully winds to blow about all night.

In a few more days, Baby Son will be performing a concerto, live on the internet. The Mrs and I have been to quite a few of his concerts but this will be the first live concert online for us and more importantly, for him too. I suppose it will be no different than watching a live concert on TV. But, for him, it will be quite a new (and odd) experience to perform on stage to an empty hall dressed in a tuxedo with a mask to cover his face. Will he feel like the phantom of the opera? I have decided I should refrain from calling him Baby Son. He hasn’t been a baby for a long time. From now on, he will be known in my stories as Little Son. Little Son’s concerts are often sell-outs. A sell-out concert is, of course, a concert promoter’s dream. A parent’s dream too, for his son. The pandemic has wrecked the livelihoods of many – musicians have not been spared. It is therefore wonderful to see bands and orchestras adapt and experiment with not only new art but to also find a new avenue for their art. I hope the audience will tune in online and turn up to support their orchestra and musicians. Rather than sitting here quietly and hoping, I decided to help promote Little Son’s concert. If I could help sell just one extra ticket, why not? So, I shared the concert’s link with friends and family. I am fully aware of the fine line between sharing good news and bragging about good news. To help his concert sell tickets is, of course, my intention. In these bleak times, a well-attended concert could mean an orchestra extending its survival for a bit longer or the musician proving to the artistic director his popularity is good enough to earn him another concert gig. If tickets do not sell, then either scenario becomes less tenable. But, will these friends of mine think I am bragging instead? The obvious retort is of course, there is nothing to brag about. We are talking about an existential threat to the survival of many orchestras and bands. There is nothing to brag about. Before the pandemic struck and changed the world, people used to come forward during concert intervals or during after-concert signings and ask me if I was the concert artists’ father. “Oh, you must be so proud!” was a common remark as they grabbed my hand and shook politely. “So Proud?” I would feign ignorance. “No, that’s my middle name!” But, in truth, there is nothing for me to be proud of. Happy, yes but proud? It wasn’t my performance, I wasn’t on stage. I played no part on the night except to join in the raucous and prolonged applause that demanded their many reappearances on stage to accept the adoration of the audience. Sure, I was most happy for my sons as they soak in the love and appreciation of the zeitgeist. The wolf whistles, thunderous clapping, ecstatic screaming and the standing ovations are visible and audible measures of success in a concert hall. They took centre stage and made it their home. They made it look easy, to feel right at home under the spotlight. They were able to move some in the audience to tears. They made some so starstruck that people stayed back to join long queues for their autographs. Sometimes, people missed the second half of concerts just to mingle with them or take selfies with them.

Queue for an autograph

Wilson, my good friend who runs a printing business, insists that I write a story about Little Son’s concert. He threatens to withdraw his support to print my second book if I refuse. I don’t know if he is serious. But, I will tell him I can’t. They may be my sons, but they are their own identities with their own stories. I may be their father but it does not give me carte blanche to tell their stories. So, this is the compromise. Maybe, their story started 50 years ago. In 1970, in Penang. I was 12 years old when I won a State Award. It was without any fanfare at home – no praises from my parents, none from my siblings. No special treats, not even a slice of vanilla ice-cream sandwiched between two wafer biscuits from Cold Storage. No pat on the back, no pep talk from Pa. It was a non-event, even though my win was proclaimed as ‘Excellent’ in the Straits Times. It earned a little square box in the English-medium newspaper – what I won was the Trinity College of Music’s Bronze Medal for sight-reading. In music, sight-reading is the reading and performing of a piece of music that a musician has not seen or learned before. If you’re really good at it, the music in the score comes out alive, faultlessly as the composer intended. My teacher did not prepare me for it. There is nothing to prepare. You do not get a chance to practise for it; there is no second try if you stuff it up. This ability to play it well at first go, you either have it or you don’t. I did not know I had that ability. It was there all along, but it lay dormant, invisible and therefore unknown. I must have had great eyesight. You do need to read fast, and be able to read ahead of what your hands are doing. Your mind is a few bars in front whilst your heart is expressing the music a few beats behind. That’s talent, raw and innate. But, winning the award meant nothing to me. It did not feel like an achievement, it was no big deal. Yet, Big Sis suddenly brought this up last night – she remembered me winning this medal. “I should find it for you, it is somewhere in the house.” she said decisively. She seldom fails to find our old mementos. There have been a few awkward moments such as those when she openly hands out old photos of my old flames (in front of The Mrs!). But, this morning, she texted me to tell me she could not find it. Only then did I recall that Ma had found it and given it to me a few years ago. So, in the last 50 years, I had forgotten twice that I had the medal with me. Maybe my parents never dreamt I could be a musician. Maybe they did not want me to be one. Maybe they were of the opinion that there is no money in music. For a typical Asian family, the safe bets for your child to have an assured comfortable life would be to enrol them in medicine, dentistry, law or accounting. Yet, kudos to my parents, they had a discussion with me about furthering my violin lessons in Vienna. For a brief few weeks, there was serious consideration that I should learn German in preparation for a student life in Vienna. It did not eventuate – I think everyone knew I did not have that latent talent to be a good violinist. But, I won the medal, maybe the latency was buried too deep? I think the fact that my parents could entertain the idea of me enrolling in a music degree despite their misconception that musicians were poorly paid laid the groundwork for the next generation that they can be whatever they choose to be. Our career path should be determined by our passion, not by the promise of money.

The bronze medal with my name inscribed on the back of it.

My sons have taken me along with them in their journey in the music world. I have to say theirs is a very different world. It does not get mundane for them, nor do the zillions of hours spent on getting the scales right and bowing techniques immaculate faze them or bore them. Different instruments and different bows produce different sounds, different textures and different colours, and these in turn reveal a different world of possibilities to them. They have been fortunate too, to grow up in Adelaide. The local conservatoire here, The Con as it is affectionately called, was the fertile environment to nurture their talent. Mrs Yelland, their first teacher, gave them everything they needed as young students in a hurry to get onto the national stage. Passion cannot be taught, it is innate too. But if passion could be acquired, then Mrs Yelland had certainly passed it on to them. It is that urge, that hunger to discover, that never-ending quest to learn more and more, to accumulate knowledge and skills, to keep improving, to never stop. That is passion, and it is passion that is behind every successful person. I remember the stale fug of Bishop Hall where they gave their early recitals. There is one evening that still resides fresh in my mind. After the successful recital, Mr Laurs, with that twinkle in his bright round eyes, beamed a smile that complemented his friendly podgy face. He hugged them proudly to let the room know that they were his students. Bishop Hall was named after John Bishop, the father of David Bishop who taught Mr Laurs at The Con. Later that evening, I got lost along the dark and dank corridors of the conservatorium which tunnel their way up to the main stage. There was a spine-tingling moment on one dark and dusty section which never saw any light of day. I felt a sudden icy-cold gust of air brush my face as the name James Whitehead echoed softly along the corridor. James Whitehead was also a great teacher who taught Mr Laurs at The Con. Now as I look back, it would not surprise me if it had been the latent power of the spirits of these great pedagogues that guided the young talented musicians to realise their potential.