Autumn In Summertown

The Bloke rushed out of his gleaming red car. For once, he didn’t park it properly. He was atypically in a rush. Atypically, because he prides himself in being punctual and very rarely is there a need for him to rush. The front right tyre protruded from the freshly painted white line that separates the parking bay from the rest of the road. The space was a trifle too small, only big enough for a small car and way too small for an eight-seater. A meticulous bloke, he does everything properly and expertly. Not a single thing is ever where it does not belong. Every key is labelled and tagged as if he feared dementia would set in any day and he would forget what they were for. I imagine his undies are labeled and tagged too, a different colour for each day of the week. A golf fanatic, he wears designer golf clothing only. Everywhere, even to the Town Hall for a concert. I imagine his walk-in wardrobe is as well-presented as a boutique store’s showroom. Well, at least as big and shiny anyway. Every shirt impeccably ironed and folded, every trousers dry-cleaned and steam-pressed. Every old tie he used to wear proudly hung in coordinated colours to remind him of his hey-day as a jet-setting entrepreneur. I imagine his wardrobe is sprayed with a eucalyptus spray; the fresh, invigorating fragrance of the Aussie bush a world away from the musty, mouldy and stale room I am used to. I imagine he would shudder every time he walks into my messy and disorganised house. Everything is not where they should be. My hair, especially. I never used to drop hair unlike The Mrs. “Get a hair-cut,” she would nag me almost every day. “Your hair is everywhere,” she exclaimed again just now. Our iRobot conked out in less than a year. Mimi, our Xiaomi robot frequently stalls, clogged with long hoary hair. “Yours, of course,” she would decisively declare. Life is unfair. When she used to drop hair, there was never any commotion. Never a snide remark. Never a complaint. It was well understood that hair naturally drops. Today, it is clear gravity should not apply to my hair.

The Bloke doesn’t ever let his guard down. But, he let his guard down the other night after a superb meal at my place. I know The Mrs may one day read this, so if I begin to heap praise here, please understand why. The Mrs had cooked a fantastic dinner for The Bloke and his wife, The Lady. Without fuss, I should add. Cooking comes easy for her. Somehow, she can miraculously come up with a feast effortlessly. It is true. You won’t see her slave in the kitchen for hours but when dinner time arrives, abracadabra, all I have to do is set the table, and an array of the most delectable meal will appear in front of our eyes. Any dish with lots of belly pork drowned in thick, sweet dark sauce is a superb dish for The Bloke. The Mrs added some slivers of dried cuttlefish to the tianmianjiang or sweet bean sauce, and it was this extra depth in the taste that made him rave about how much better it was than his wife’s version of the dark soy belly pork. It was unusual to see him loosen his lips. We all know never to disparage someone’s cooking, especially the one who cooks our meal every day! Maybe I poured him too much wine. Plied with the best red wine from my wine fridge, he relaxed too much. Loose lips sink ships! I sent him a message by telepathy. Don’t drink any more of my expensive wine! The telepathy did not work. He kept drinking more and more of my expensive wine whilst comparing and analysing the dish. “Ah, yes. See the cuttlefish?” he said, as he picked up a thread of it with the serving chopsticks. His wife sat there across the table, agog, not knowing what to say. The Lady simply disagreed. “No, I add dried cuttlefish too,” she said. “No, I add enough tianmianjiang too,” she defended her ego. “No, I melt the fat too, on a slow flame,” she argued.

Maybe The Bloke did not let his guard down at all. Maybe, he is just being honest with me. Despite what he said years ago that in-laws by marriage aren’t family, he may have recently changed his mind. Our wives are sisters. So, The Lady is my sister-in-law. The Bloke is my sister-in-law’s husband. For The Bloke to consider me as not part of his family, I think, is legally right. In Punjabi, he is my saandhu. Quite different from soondhu. As a kid, I was often called a soondhu, which I suspect is a derogatory word for “idiot”. A Tamil friend just told me soondhu means “bum”, and soondhu naroot means “root your bum”. But, last night, The Bloke told me I am family. The elation I felt was exhilarating, even at my age. I suppose being accepted and embraced as a family member is special, for any age. So, he did not let his guard down when he told me he could so easily transform my house into “the best house”. He was merely treating me as a close family member, telling me the truth. I was expecting him to come up with some clever interior design ideas. Something creative. Something fresh, an artistic revelation. A bold statement needs a bold idea. With bated breath, I leaned forward to the edge of my chair. I wanted mine to be the “the best house”. “I hope it won’t cost me an arm and a leg,” I said, already almost ready to spend the thousands I have not got. “Just listen,” The Lady said. “I have the same idea too,” she added smugly, as she sipped the expensive wine.

It was really so simple. All The Bloke told me to do was hire a Skip bin and get rid of every single item in the house that I have never used in the last three years. Just get rid of the clutter. But, it is the idea of letting go that is difficult. Dump the samurai swords and the other dust collectors, the pretend antiques? What about the threadbare sofa in my office that serves as a laundry basket-cum-book shelf for my music sheets and The Mrs’ art and some of her long-forgotten clothes. What about my collection of The Strad magazines? Years and years of them. Should I throw away the panel of ‘Four Seasons’ made of mother of pearl, a wedding present from my parents? They line a wall, a precious gift taking up precious space from which The Mrs would love to hang her own paintings? Should I dump the boxes of masks now that the mask mandate has been cancelled? Dare I venture to the kitchen and assume the empty jam jars and the rarely used pots and pans are “excess to requirement”? What about the chipped cups and stained plates that are consigned to just occupying shelf space? Bin them together with the crystal glasses and champagne glasses that we do not bother to use for cleaning them requires extra care and delicate hands? What about the $200 hand hammered wok that The Mrs won’t use? As for our old clothes, where do I begin? I mean, they aren’t old but rarely worn. They don’t fit, not because we have put on weight, but because the fashion then was loose-fit rather than slim-fit. What about the suits with Italian-sounding labels that are not Italian made and the scores of business shirts and trousers that were fashionable in the 80s? “Oh, they were long gone,” The Mrs revealed. “Oh, I suppose I did not miss them after all,” I said, missing the euphoric days. I still see the 80s as my most successful years. The era when I carved out a career, bought my first house and created three human beings out of pleasure. The Mrs’ words kept ringing in my head. Those days were “long gone“.

The Bloke is a very exact kind of bloke. Everything must be exactly right, even if it meant we let the salt and pepper lobster go cold as he manoeuvred the dish left to right, and right to left, to get the best angle with the best lighting. Or sear another piece of ribeye steak to replace the one that was a bit rare for his photo. Or pour the wine again, but this time more slowly so that the wine swirls in the glass. Or redecorate the plate of noodles so that it does not look like a crumpled mess, and with each passing second, the food gets colder! Yet, that day, he parked his 8-seater car at an angle from the kerb. It had to be something magical to make a meticulous bloke less meticulous. And it was. Autumn. At its finest, in Summertown.

Mt Lofty Botanical Gardens. Photo by Anne Koh

“Summertown is thirteen minutes from our place,” The Bloke told me with exact precision. A quaint village with a population of less than a hundred, up in the Adelaide Hills just behind us. Being in the foothills, we get a lot more than the fair share of rain and a lot less of the sun. “The sun is out,” The Lady said whilst munching on a piece of crunchy roast pork from the Vietnamese broken rice combo which does not contain any broken rice, an absurd and the most blatant example of false and misleading advertising that has gone unpunished for a very long time. In autumnal morns and dreary wintry arvos, it is important that we acknowledge the sun when it chooses to come out and play. Winter is long and bleak here, so any glimpse of the sun from hereon needs to be celebrated. Summertown is a historical town, once heralded the “food bowl” of South Australia. It got its name from being the summer attraction for the city folk to seek reprieve from the summer heat. Temperatures are usually 3-5 degrees cooler, making the vegetation greener in spring, browner in summer and golden and redder in autumn. Occasionally it will snow, making the land white.

Summertown, May 2022. Photo by Anne Koh.

As soon as The Bloke drove into the carpark of Mt Lofty Botanical Gardens, I could sense the excitement level rise in his gleaming red car. The Lady held her breath as her eyes followed his finger which was pointing at the colours that suddenly presented themselves from a distance. She gasped. He whistled. The ‘ooohs and aaahs’ that emanated from the couple momentarily to me seemed to be describing their love-making, but of course, it was the sound of their love for nature’s colours. “Nature is the best artist, said The Lady, herself a well-known artist. I offered to find a better spot to park, so they rushed away by themselves into the garden which resembled a painting that Nature had produced. They were too quick for The Mrs, who decided to rest in the car and loudly worry about our dog instead. We had left Murray at home by himself a few hours earlier, so The Mrs felt we ought to be home by then. Lunch at the Barristers Block winery was a sumptuous affair with free-flowing wine all provided free-of-charge by Jan Allen, the founder and Managing Director. Jan very kindly sacrificed her day off and came to party with us at her cellar door, which she made exclusive for our use. Thanks, Jan! We are definitely fans of Jan’s.

Summertown, May 2022. Photo by PW Koh.

Mushrooms have long had the connotation of being known as psychedelic drugs. Maybe The Lady and The Bloke had inadvertently kicked some magic mushrooms as they rushed down the meadow to soak in the beauty of the landscape in front of them. Was it the vapours or the dust from the psylocybin growing everywhere there that gave them that hallucinogenic effect that afternoon? They were visibly “high” when they returned to the car. Positively alive, almost euphoric and ecstatic with nature’s paintings, they seemed charged with electric ions and the whole car reverberated with their serotonin and uncontrollable laughter. By contrast, The Mrs was sleepy and dull or maybe dulled by my presence.

So, I thought it was an opportune moment for me to ask her, “When you first saw me, was it my beautiful body or my intellect that attracted you?”

“I still like your sense of humour,” she replied.

I promised myself that would be the last time I am misled by her sleepy look. When did I become the man who wears the pants at home but the pants are picked by her from K-Mart? Little things add up. To be a good husband, I knew a long time ago I have to do many good things in life for her, usually small deeds which on their own aren’t significant. But, it is not that little burst of light over shade or that little brush mark or a dollop of colour or a brilliant stroke of a palette knife by an artist that makes a painting come alive. It is everything little thing and every decision that the artist chose that makes it into a work of art. Similarly, I am not afraid to make mistakes or make choices in life. We make very many of them in life. Each one may be small, or may be unimportant, but together, they are what made me who I am. Someone will say joyously, “Yes, you’re a big mistake!”

Well-being is realised by small steps, but is truly no small thing.

Socrates (?)

A magic mushroom? It was magical, nevertheless. Photo by HK Ng

I happened to watch the movie Before Sunset a few nights ago. When I realised it is a sequel to Before Sunrise, I watched that too. A simple love story, the movie was about two people who crossed paths in a train and they impulsively decided to spend one day together in Vienna. Nine years later, they met in Paris and tried to find out how life would have panned out for them had they acted on their mutual feelings for each other following their wonderful time together in Vienna. It then crossed my mind that an equally powerful story could be written for a married couple who many years later asked each other how better life would have been had they not acted on their feelings back then. The following morning, I looked at The Bloke and The Lady and realised how theirs has been a truly wonderful love story. For them, their love story is a gift that keeps giving more and more. Magic mushrooms, anyone?

Sing Him A Hymn

The Bloke seemed far away even though I could hear him breathe. He was digging into his third Eggs Benedict in two weeks. Across the table, The Mrs, who typically must tell me what to have and when, said out loudly, “See, I told you to order the same! See how inviting it is?” A bit too loudly, as a sweet young thing a table away looked up at us. The Lady joined her sister in a chorus, “Try it, it’s really good,” as she shoved towards my face a fork crowned with a bit of English muffin and pale bacon, messily dripping a trail of golden yellow sauce on our table. Legend has it that it was a hungover Wall Street broker, Lemuel Benedict, who, whilst breakfasting at the Waldorf Hotel, ordered a buttered toast and asked for it to be topped with poached eggs, crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce. The Bloke did not look up as he challenged himself to pierce at a bigger portion of the poached egg. The two and a half years away from his Adelaide home have been kind to him, I deduced. I had not noticed any drastic physical changes in him. Still youngish-looking, his powerful sonorous voice still lands him the status of ‘Best Singer’ in our circle, our ‘Perry Como’ or more accurately our ‘Lau Tak Wah’ since his array of all-time favourites are all Mandarin songs. But, this time round, after the Covid-enforced absence, he is less inclined to sing. Our karaoke sessions, which used to be held nightly, were memorable, loud and fun. We have not sung together for more than three times in the three weeks they have been here. Maybe the last time I sang, I was off-key, lost confidence and became low key. Singing makes us happy. Yet, I can’t help but think we only sing when we are happy. Something is amiss, I thought as he shoved the final piece of muffin into his mouth. He had been looking down at his plate so much that morning that I could not help notice the alarming rate of hair thinning that was going on at the centre of his scalp. Right at that moment, I could not decide which was worse, a glabrous section on the scalp or sparse areas on the head. I looked at the sleeve of my threadbare jacket and decided on the latter.

Eggs Benedict at the Feather’s Pavilion

The Bloke looked at me with sad eyes. Was he sad or sad for me, I wondered. He spoke about an old friend of his whose story would make a stoic man cry. “He is a really kind man, but much maligned and misunderstood, even by his wife,” The Bloke said. Although I did not know this ragged man in ragged clothes, I could easily sympathise with him; how even the most hardened of men could feel their sanity ebb away under a deluge of misfortune, bad timing and worst luck. When I first sang Don Mclean’s ‘Vincent’, I was still a teenager living in Penang. I had no clue that the song was about Vincent van Gogh, who I revered decades later as the greatest of all artists bar perhaps the old master, Rembrandt van Rijn. As The Bloke related the stories about his beautiful old friend to me, the lyrics of the song played loudly in my head. I imagined a destitute man with a weathered face that was lined in pain, flailing under swirling clouds in violet haze, as he tried to set himself free. With eyes that know the darkness in his soul, and when no hope was left inside his troubled mind, The Bloke advised him to let go and not cling to his losses. “But he would not listen,” The Bloke said. Just like in the song, he’s not listening still, perhaps he never will. I felt he is like a stranger that I have met, in a world that was never meant for people with beautiful souls.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“He lost everything. Every time.” The Bloke said.

“Sounds like me,” I said before adding, “except I lost a lot, every time, not quite everything.”

Not quite everything, but still, it was bad enough every time. Bad enough for The Mrs to be scarred for life; bad enough to lose my credibility and tarnish the aura of responsibility and dependability I had promised The Mrs. Bad enough this time to want to start again. But, suffering a big economic loss is incomparable to losing The Mrs’ trust and respect. Besides love, trust and respect were the other big pillars that made me strong, confident and relevant. Losing those was a heavy price which took years to remedy. The money I lost from making dud investments was just a temporary setback. Money lost can be earned again. In 1987, I lost what was equivalent to the value of an apartment in Coogee. I was 29, and had lots of years to fix that. Which I did. When I lost big again in 2008, I was 50. I knew I still had time to fix my losses, but I also knew that the next 10-15 years were vital to how I write the final chapters of my life. I had read somewhere that Colonel Sanders did not franchise his KFC business till he was 62, and that gave me the energy to continue with gusto. The two sharemarket crashes felt like they were my doing. The market was booming each time, until I betted big on my share portfolios. On both occasions. As soon as I did, the market crashed. Bad timing? Bad omen? The Mrs said it was my bad karma. I had so much bad luck I could crash the markets. She made me promise not to ever buy shares again or else.

“Or else?” I asked.

Silence.

But, the answer was clear and I did not require a reply from her. There would be no ‘next time”. If I were to be so bold or reckless to invest again in the sharemarket, it would be the trigger for a divorce.

“What happened to your friend?” I asked The Bloke.

“Is his wife leaving him?” I asked insensitively.

“Like you, he lost most of his investments in 1987 and 2008. But he also lost big in 1997, during the Asian Financial Crisis,” The Bloke said.

“So, he avoided the stock markets like a plague, and invested in real estate instead,” he said as he sipped the last drop of cappuccino from his cup.

“Shall I get you another cup?” I asked, not wanting him to end his story too quickly. But, as is usually the case with me, I spoke too softly and too unclearly. He didn’t hear me and didn’t ask me to repeat what I said.

“He bought a townhouse in the city,” he continued.

“Off the plan. So foolish,” The Bloke said.

There had been stubborn rumours the builder will follow two other builders who were giants in the construction industry and file for bankruptcy. That morning’s news of the CEO’s sudden death had forced the company to deny those rumours again. A few weeks earlier, The Bloke’s old friend had celebrated after hearing prices for building raw materials had shot through the roof after months of supply shocks due to pandemic-related manufacturing and shipping issues. He had locked in the low price with a fixed-price contract.

“He bought it cheap two years ago, the real estate market has gone up 20-30% easily since then, and inflation has made building costs gone up even more,” The Bloke said.

But, we know never to trust builders, especially builders that are facing high costs escalations. First, they wrote to say they needed to lower the ceiling heights by 300mm on the third floor, spinning excuses that the air-cond ducting was too bulky to fit under the roof beams and the city council had height restrictions in place to prevent them from building higher. Lower the ceiling height meant lowering costs. “Yeah, I wouldn’t believe that story,” I said without industry knowledge and without evidence. The Bloke said as a compromise, they would install a bulkhead in the bedrooms with linear grilles to make it aesthetically modern instead of the ceiling grilles.

“Let me draft a letter for him,” I offered.

Later that morning, I emailed the draft to The Bloke. It went like this:

“Whilst I appreciate the attempt to remedy the loss of 12% of the ceiling height to the two bedrooms and bathrooms, the eventual loss in amenity and value of our properties is too much to accept. Your proposal to “fix” the air-conditioning ductworks by way of the bulkhead and linear grille seems to be a reasonable compromise to avoid further delays to the project, and the gesture to install extra lights to the bathrooms is also commendable but we remain unhappy with the outcome of lower ceiling heights. 

In Stone v Chappel, the plaintiffs were awarded a financial compensation for the loss of amenity and enjoyment of the property as per the contractual agreement. In that case, they only lost 48mm, here we are looking at a loss of 300mm. Aside from the loss of property value, there is also the loss of amenity that is difficult to value. 

This breach of contract on your part has a cost but currently, the cost is for the buyer to bear solely. We need to address this so that the outcome is a fairer compensation for us.”

But, even as I drafted the letter, I felt it would be a total waste of time, if the builder folded. Memories of my old trauma came back to haunt me. Poor guy, I would hate to be in his shoes. He would face a huge financial loss if the builder folded, but a potential lawsuit if they didn’t.

“Worse was to come for him,” The Bloke said, as he sipped his coffee from the cup I had just paid for.

“My friend owns an online business that sells after-market products for cars,” The Bloke said.

“Last week, Toyota sued him for selling counterfeit goods,” he said, as his eyes looked sadder and sadder, and his brows furrowed into a stubborn knot.

“That is sad indeed,” I said whilst thinking of how the old man would cope with another big lawsuit at the same time.

“Why did he do such a stupid thing?” I asked, and assumed he knew full well the risks of selling anything that might hint of piracy.

“No, the goods he sells are after-market goods made to suit Toyota cars,” The Bloke defended his pal. They are branded in some obscure names, certainly not Toyota, yet the car giant saw fit to flex their financial muscle and sent Clayton Utz to pursue this small business owner.

“When you’re down, you get kicked one more time,” I unhelpfully added.

“Bad luck comes in threes,” I said.

“What is the third?” I insensitively asked.

“He got scammed by Bitcoin,” The Bloke said in an almost disparaging tone.

“I told him not to be fooled by these snake oil salesmen,” The Bloke continued.

The Mrs was sitting across the table from me, so I did the only wise thing and bit my lips until they bled. It was not the place and time for me to speak. In their eyes, I had no such credentials to question let alone challenge The Bloke’s opinions about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He has the runs on the board. He has made a reputation for hitting massive sixes and scoring quick centuries, to borrow a cricket parlance. He has the Midas touch turning almost anything into gold whereas in The Mrs’ eyes, the only thing I am good for is my tendency to score golden ducks.

As if prompted by the current demise in the crypto market, a friend posted a 10-minute report by The Economist yesterday. A Hongkonger friend commented, “Gambling. One word to summarise Bitcoin.” So, I asked him for his one thousand word summary instead, “so that we can fully understand why you say that,” I said. The Hongkonger simply brushed me aside, stating that a thousand word thesis is not a summary. Unhappy with his dismissive reply, I hurled back at him more words.

“A thousand-word thesis is a summary compared to a book. Have you read the Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous before you made your one-word summary?”

“If not, whose works have you researched before you boldly made your one-word summary?”

“Besides, your one-word summary does not explain why Bitcoin can be viewed as a philosophy or as a useful form of money that can stop the wars that don’t end.”

“But I’m really keen to know how many hours’ research you’ve put in to make this one-word summary. The accuracy or quality of your summary may well depend on the quality of your research, right?”

“Also, it would be interesting to know what event (or events) this wager you refer to has to happen in order to win the bet.”

“Firstly when a report describes Satoshi Nakamoto as a shady character when they mean anonymous, it already hints of their negative bias.”

“Secondly, Bitcoin has not suddenly become volatile, it has always been. If you understand Metcalfe’s Law, then you’d understand why. Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer dropped 90% of its value in its nascent years. Same reason. That’s what happens in the S curve of any new technological innovation.”

“Thirdly, the Economist is dishonest, to say the least, about Bitcoin being responsible for wasteful energy consumption and equating it to a big contributor of climate change. The cartoon depicting miners using olden day trucks and chains transporting black ore is a sly way to reinforce this FUD (news or propaganda to create fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the blockchain technology. Bitcoin mining actually uses less power than all washing machines and clothes dryers combined, and they do not compete in the use of urban energy which is way too expensive for miners. About 58-63% of big miners use renewable energy and are mostly situated in deserts and places with lots of solar and hydro power. Others such as Exxon and Occidental are using their flare gas which otherwise would be energy that is simply wasted.”

“Fourthly, the report is dead wrong about Bitcoin being of no economic value as a payment system. Not surprisingly, Bill Gates echoes the same, he’s a one of the leaders of the WEF and of course they would want to spread FUD about a new money system that threatens their grip on the whole world. Proponents of fiat money are evil as they have always used their monetary power to suppress poor nations and control the masses. Fiat money funds wars!”

“Can I direct your attention to the Lightning network which sits on the Bitcoin network? Jack Maller’s Strike has already demonstrated how fast his payment system is. At the speed of light and at transactions per second bigger than PayPal and Visa and MasterCard combined, it is frictionless and therefore free. A big threat to the banks and card issuers, they signed up Shopify to integrate with tens of thousands of merchants receiving Bitcoin payments globally as US Dollars.”

“Fifthly, the underworld would not be so dumb to use Bitcoin to launder their money! Some scammers do but they are always eventually caught. Why? Because if you understand the open ledger publicly verifiable system, then you know everything is open and can be viewed and traced. It’s the permissionless and decentralised nature that the World Economic Forum WEF is afraid of. Therefore they use their organisations under their control, the IMF and central banks to spread more FUD.”

“To compare this exciting new technology to Tulips is indeed laughable! The blockchain technology will eventually be the foundation for new technologies to sit on, what is now commonly known as Web 3.0”

“The sovereign states and central banks have a self interest to suppress the price of Bitcoin by spreading FUD news so that they themselves can buy it first? Maybe!”

“If there is a 5% chance this technology will revolutionise the world, why would anyone not put 5% of their savings into it? That’s a basic thing about insurance. It is about looking at probabilities, not gambling!! And that is my summary.”

My Hongkonger friend insisted on having the last words.

“Like I said, mine was my summary of the video. I am not giving an opinion about Bitcoin.”

With no one else to talk to, I took Murray out for a meal instead. For the record, we did not touch on losers and their Bitcoin losses.

Grrrrr…Murray dislikes anyone who disagrees with me. Photo by Anne Koh

Honour Thy Owner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murray knows to honour his owner.

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

The handsome one is Murray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honour the owner. Honour thy neighbour.

The Seller Without A Cellar

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

Egg and mushrooms and deep-fried halloumi cheese.

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

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

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

If you want some good, get it from yourself.

Epitetus, Discourses, 1.29.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

No strange white-haired man in sight.

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

Finally, no more boogeyman here.

Traits & Portraits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Hosts And The Ghosts

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

A ghostly spider! Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng

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

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

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

No famish with a Spanish breakfast

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

Kolo mee for me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wise men say, only fools rush in…”

Elvis Presley

Some Facts in Halifax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some facts in Halifax

My Sidekick Is A Psychic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My sidekick, a psychic. Photo by Francis Koh.

WEF? WTF!

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

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

Henry Kissinger, AZ Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confucius

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

Schism About Catechism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan: You misremembered or maybe misinterpreted the teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan: (Silence).

Day Two

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

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

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

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

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