Gory Crowning & Crowning Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Much More At Sixty-Four

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

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

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

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

Epictetus, Discourses,, 1.6.1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just know,” he said, unconvincingly.

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

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

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

“I said your girl is pregnant!”

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

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

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

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

Henry David Thoreau

More At Sixty-Four

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

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

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

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

Wagyu Robata was so good we ordered another serve.

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

Flamed charcoal unagi, the old man’s favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.59

Anymore At Sixty-Four?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, there are three forms of government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who controls money controls the world.”

Henry Kissinger

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

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

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

With that last remark, the party ended.

To The Fore When I’m Sixty-Four

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

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

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

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

Confucius, Book of Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair

Many fears from now

Will I still be standing on my pedestal

Heyday, meetings, own a gold mine?

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

Would you lock the door

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Our kids will be older too

And if they say they were hurt

That I betrayed you

Could they be happy, ending abuse

When our fights forgone

You can sit with a dreamer by the fireside

Chilly mornings on the way to Ryde

Nothing’s forbidden, smokin’ the weed

Amore or amour

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Every summer visit the Hermitage in St Petersburg

There’s nothing to fear

There is talk of war

Putin going nuclear

A lunatic’s rave

Dead men on a cart, NATO aligned

Putin’s point of view

Predicate precisely what the US say

Sanctioned dearly, wasting away

Not an inch eastward, yet there they are

Hermits evermore

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

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

Learn From The Learned

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

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

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

The mind freed is an impenetrable fortress.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48

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

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

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

Belatedly Delated

Mother Nature is wonderfully reliable. For countless years, the old man witnessed the seasons arriving punctually, as if pre-ordained. Come September 11, the Wisteria tree in the old man’s garden would put on a show as grand as one befitting a Royal Show. It was clockwork, precise and predictable, just like orange trees fruiting in the winter months. But, this spring, the Wisterias have not yet bloomed. They are late, as is the season. The old man’s hands were still cold and sticky like ice cubes as he looked at his ageing fingers. Increasingly, they are blotted with dark spots and scaly wrinkles; without his glasses and against direct sunlight, the wrinkly skin appear to him like sand ripples on a desert. Today is a public holiday – a national day of mourning to commemorate the passing of Queen Elizabeth. The grand old dame has finally carked it. Once she reached 90, every day was a bonus, I suppose. Funeral arrangements would have been discussed and planned years ago, eulogies pre-written, hymns and music selected, documentaries of her long reign long prepared. Still, news of her death pricked the old man. There was regret in his voice. “Ma misses out,” he said. He had wished his mother to receive a congratulatory letter from the Queen when she turns a hundred next September. Ordinary folks do not get anything from royalty. His mother was so close to getting something from the Queen! A personal letter to her, signed by the monarch. How special it would have been. Officially, according to the lunar calendar, his mother had already celebrated her 100th birthday, but westerners do not include a baby’s time in a womb when counting their age. So, at 99, she misses out. The feeling reminiscent of a cricketer missing out on a century by a single run. Painful!

“It is not true that ordinary folks do not get anything from the monarchy,” the old man corrected me. Awards and congratulatory letters were given out and occasionally, the Queen was known to have hosted tea parties for the locals.

“My son received the prestigious Queen’s Commendation for Excellence in his final year at the Royal Academy in London,” he proudly informed me. “That’s something, right?” he beamed a smile that showed an unsightly row of crooked teeth. One upper tooth with a markedly different shade of filling in the front was chipped but he had said ‘no’ a week ago to his dentist who wanted to mend it with a more matching stain to blend with the tea-stained enamel.

“Oh? I don’t recall you sharing any photos,” I said.

“Nah, no photos.”

“How is that possible?” I asked, expressing incredulity with a higher-pitch voice.

“Oh, he didn’t attend the ceremony.”

“He what?!” I let out a shriek that conveyed disappointment. “He should be delated for his rudeness!” I added. The hunger for recognition and the aspiration to be honoured is timeless. One could even go so far as to say that such a yearning is carved onto our bones. We all need to be loved, we all want to be remembered. That is the way since time immemorial. “How dare he not cherish such a distinguished achievement?” I asked.

“I am sure the Queen didn’t take offence to it. His absence would not have registered a beat in her busy life as a monarch,” he said.

But, the old man too felt his son should have been delated for his impropriety. Fancy not fronting up to receive his award from the kind old woman. The Queen had throughout her long reign set herself as a standard bearer for a lifetime of public service and always showed proper decorum and regal conduct in ruling her subjects. “Why slight her majesty with his absence?” I asked. “How could he not turn up?” The old man shrugged his shoulders and looked at me blankly. His absolute silence was accompanied by a pair of dull eyes that seemed to be floating in another world that had lost its pellucid waters. He isn’t all there, I thought to myself. If that is what ageing does to people, then I hope I won’t live till I’m so old.

The old man came back the following day and without waiting for me to invite him to come in and sit down, he marched into my house, promptly plonked himself heavily on my leather sofa and asked for a cup of tea. I gave my leather sofa a worried look, suspecting that it was he who had bent one of the metal legs many years earlier.

“My son wasn’t rude to the Queen!” he announced.

“Howzat,” I asked courteously, without any interest in his answer.

“Although the Queen had approved who got the award, it was actually presented by HRH The Duchess of Gloucester,” he said.

“Oh, I see,” I replied drily, showing not even a hint of interest in who the Duchess was or how she was related to the Queen. “It’s alright then, I suppose,” I said without looking at him, in two minds about whether to open a new box of teabags or finish the old ones.

“Maybe King Charles the Third will continue with the tradition and write your mother a letter next year,” I said whilst carefully serving him the tea he had asked for. The Ahmad Tea was from a box that showed a ‘Best before’ date of 2019/10/10 but I was sure the old man would not be so discernible to realise that.

“Ma may not think as highly of him though!” he said. “Pa certainly would not have,” he continued. “Although Pa was afraid of the communists, he was at the same time, wary of the massacres dished out by the Brits in their war against the Chinese people in Malaya in 1952,” he said. By sheer coincidence, a friend of his had shared a recently declassified report about Britain’s war for rubber and tin in Malaya that was falsely presented to the world as a war against Chinese communism.

Britain’s forgotten war for rubber

“Hey! Stop it, before you delate your own father,” I said. I remembered his most likeable father had talked about the misdeeds of the British Empire during the two Opium Wars and the massacres during and after their occupation of India and the daylight robberies in British Raj and other colonised countries. “Together, they are now the Commonwealth but what is common is much of the wealth is now in the UK,” he said. “But, Ma liked the Queen. She was regal, graceful and always behaved with propriety,” he said. I wondered if his mother had ever been jealous of the Queen – she had everything given to her on a silver platter and the thousands of crown jewels she owned, the most famous or infamous being the Koh-i-Noor, looted from the 10-year-old boy King, Duleep Singh. The Brits like all of the West will screech and scream for Jewish art and gems stolen by the Nazis to be returned to their rightful owners yet when it comes to treasures they seized during the Empire’s heyday , they will point to signed Treaties (under the forceful persuasion of guns to the heads) and the impossibility of determining true ownership, often the rulers who owned them headed nations that no longer exist.

“Propriety? What is that?” I asked. This is the one trait about this old man that frustrates me. Often spewing irrelevance and archaic words, he is as annoying as dust on my vintage wines and fake antique wares.

“Propriety is much valued by Confucius,” the old man replied. “It’s the practice of behaving according to accepted standards and morals,” he continued. “You know, it’s like inviting a friend who is visiting, into your house or offering him a seat and a cup of fresh tea,” he said. Fresh tea! My spine froze and the hair on my neck sprung up like a meerkat caught in the middle of the night by a car’s high beam. I had behaved niggardly towards him and now he’s making me feel it! Suddenly, I felt like a blade of glass in a drought, all shrivelled up and utterly hopeless.

Without propriety, respectfulness is just wasted energy, carefulness becomes timidity, boldness becomes insubordination and frankness is just rudeness.

Confucius, The Analects
It was Murray’s 4th birthday on 21/9. I secretly gave the dog a cake which had some yam cream in it…..shhhh, please do not delate me to his owner.

Kismet, How They Met And Kissed

Fate. “Do you believe in fate?” The old man was watching The Matrix a few nights ago when he stumbled on the question (again). It was kind-of a silly question for Morpheus to ask Neo, considering where they were – in the Matrix – where everyone lived in a virtual world created by AI to control humans. Humans being kept alive to provide the energy source for machines to ‘survive’ no longer seemed as dystopian to the old man now as it did the first time he watched the movie, some twenty years ago. With winter coming, what will Europe do without Russian gas? They are literally shutting down some of their industrial machines today.

“No,” Neo replied.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.”

Believing in prophecies is the same as believing in fate, the old man reckoned. Believing in fate brings about a paradigm shift in one’s principles and philosophies about life. The concept of working hard to achieve one’s goals will feel perplexing if fate will after all dictate the outcome of one’s aspirations rather than brawn and brain. Although Neo is “The One” in the story, it later turned out he was not the only one. Spoiler alert. There were others before him! To the old man, that story line felt right. No one is really in control of life, we are given choices and not every choice we make will be right. Neo could not have freed humanity in his first go. The machines were too intelligent to be beaten by one man, even if he was ‘The One’. It was a movie that required the old man to concentrate on the plots and twists. As it turned out, even The Oracle, the kind and gentle woman that she was, was not human.

The right to choose was a birthright given by God. As a kid, the old man could not reconcile himself with that concept. How was it a real choice if any other choice was a sin punishable by eternal condemnation? In short, obey or else. The old man didn’t like that. Like Neo in the movie, he didn’t like the idea that he didn’t really have a choice. ‘Some will of course say we do have the freedom to choose, to obey or not, but to the old man, that was akin to only walking the one path that had been laid out, choosing any other path meant purgatory. At least Neo’s choice was real – he got to choose the blue pill or the red pill. Blue is safe, if he wanted to remain in the created world of bliss and ignorance where humans toil and live under centralised control. Neo chose the red pill, which has a ‘location device’ that will enable his cohorts to find him and unplug him from the Matrix.

“Why spurn ignorance and bliss, Neo?” the old man asked quietly.

The old man was coming down with the flu. “No, no, it’s not Covid,” he assured his Mrs without proof. When the body ached and the brain seemed frazzled and fried, calm and bliss would be a heavenly choice. The air turned almost solid. Breathing was difficult. His nostrils rained heavily all night and when he ran out of tissue paper, he borrowed his dog’s blanket to wipe the wetness from his nose. His eyes were turning reddish and bleary. He chose the orange pill from the Codral box. The orange pill. His mind drifted away from the fight scenes that Keanu Reeves would have spent many hours practising for. The actor sparred slowly rather than fight like a real kungfu master. His only move that was convincing was the way he copied Bruce Lee’s beckoning hand-wave to invite the opponent to attack. The orange pill had an immediate effect on the old man. The threatening fever had quickly evaporated and although the clock was ticking quickly towards midnight, he didn’t feel tired anymore. Maybe the afternoon caffeine had kicked in late but his mind was motoring away like a pilotless boat. Keanu Reeves was still pretending to be Bruce Lee. The movie was made in 1999. Ten years before Bitcoin was invented. Would it have been an orange pill instead if the movie was made today?

The old man didn’t know why they associated Bitcoin with orange colour. Maybe the creator with the pseudo name Satoshi Nakamoto liked the colour. The old man went down the rabbit hole that Bitcoin inevitably leads everyone interested in it into. It is not just about money, although the question will definitely come up. What is money? Once you know what money is, the journey down the hole will accelerate and more questions will be asked. Why is Bitcoin better than fiat currency? Why is it better than gold? Why is it better than commodities and real estate? Why is decentralised money safer? Can governments seize it? Why is it not yours if it’s not your keys? What is Metcalfe’s Law? What is frictionless payment? Why is Bitcoin a bank that all Central Banks are afraid of? Why is it incorruptible? How many people in the world are unbanked? “The saying ‘being orange-pilled’ means you begin to see the world through orange-tinted glasses,” the old man said to his Mrs. “You’ll want to find out about the WEF, why they say you’ll be happier when you have nothing,” he continued. “It will lead you to rethink macro-economic theories, and maybe choose Austrian economic theory over modern monetary theory.” “Why MMT leads to loose money printing and,” he said before being cut off. She didn’t want to know, such matters were too dry for her. She said retirees deserve to look at the beautiful things in life. “We earned it,” she said in her usual strong and loud voice. Bitcoin won’t be for her then, it will not offer a lens with a rose tint.

His thoughts about the orange pill vanished the second the old man saw them kissing. That’s kismet. Meeting and falling in love despite flying in and out of the ‘real’ world, the Matrix world, the metaverse within the Matrix, and the machine world – the physical world. Fancy that. What were the chances of Neo and Trinity (was she also another ‘The One’?) meeting and falling in love? They met and they kissed. That’s kismet.

Painting by The Mrs. Three iterations of Third Son in her world.

The old man’s mind wandered off before the movie finished. He was thinking of his first kiss before quickly banishing the thought from his mind. It was innocent, it was impulsive. He wasn’t the one who initiated it. He knew who it was who gave him his first kiss but he could not remember when and where. “Ah, a forgettable kiss then,” he told himself. As if out of some unnecessary guilt, he quickly told himself to think of his first kiss with his Mrs instead. “Can you describe it?” I asked him, hoping to be able to write a moment in time that was captured by a romantic kiss between a boy and a girl who met in uni in 1979. There are so many ways to describe a kiss. I wanted to write about the gentle meeting of lips, the sensuous joining of body and soul through the art of love and the ecstasy of falling in love with ‘The One’. “Or was it an awkward kiss?” I pressed him to reply. I was afraid to have to write about the clumsy sound of teeth knocking or the messy dribble of an uncontrolled wet kiss and the entanglement of wayward tongues. Luckily, the old man remained silent and gave me a distant look instead, obviously transported to another world, his world when he was a 21-year-old.

Mehta Matters

For a very long time, the old man wished he would have the privilege one day to hear Zubin Mehta conduct live. That wish came true two nights ago in Melbourne, in the Hamer Hall. Mehta mattered enough to the old man to make the trip to Melbourne. “He’s 86 already,” the old man reasoned. “Who knows if Mehta will bother to come again,” he told his Mrs. He and his Mrs finally left the safe sanctuary of their home in South Australia and bravely faced the world outside their borders after three years of seclusion. Seclusion does funny things to people. He felt anxious breathing the stale air and carbon dioxide trapped behind his mask and was visibly avoiding people until he couldn’t anymore. In the end, he did not even bother with masking after seeing his Mrs chucking away hers.

He had prepared the trip months in advance, strong-willed with every intention to drive to Victoria and back. Naively the old man, despite his age and experience, thought he could avoid crowded places in a big exciting city such as Melbourne. He thought he could find safety from the masses in his car, avoid all forms of public transport and luxuriate in an Airbnb unit like a hermit. He had his car serviced, itinerary planned, routes mapped out and eyesight tested. That last precaution was important, but he felt he did not pass the test. Even with his new glasses on, he could not see very well. His eye doctor was pleasantly surprised that his patient could still see, despite the bad epiretinal membrane tear. The old man wasn’t so pleased – he yearned for a normal eyesight that would let him see the newborn fish in the pond or the layers of dust that hide from him and proclaim to his Mrs that he’s a lousy helper in the house chores department. During a recent violin practice, he played many wrong notes – he insisted that he could not read the notes, not that he could not play them – and as he edged closer and closer to the music, straining to read the score, he hit the music stand with his precious violin’s scroll. There and then, he felt he was not game enough to drive for nine hours straight to attend a concert.

He sighed and cursed himself for growing old. The other concern he had was the number of toilet breaks he would need in such a long journey. Could he time his stops well or could his bladder fail? How many extra pairs of pants should he pack? ‘When you’re old, never miss a chance to take a pee,’ he was once reminded by his Mrs after a minor accident. When his Mrs observed that he was over-gorging on nuts, he said he should whilst he still had teeth. Peanuts and groundnuts were his favourite snacks that his larder never lacked. Never a wasteful chap, he agreed to follow a friend’s advice, “Never waste an erection even if you’re alone.”

Ageing is kind of unkind. Onset of dementia meant the old man’s 99-year-old mother did not remember that he was a good son. On the night before his trip, he had dinner delivered by Uber Eats to her house. His Mrs had planned to cook a nice dish before leaving for her art class but the whole house was without power all day. Correction, since they were leaving the next day, the house would be without power for many days. When they returned from their short holiday, the electrician said they had multiple failures all at the same time. Rats had munched on a mess of wires above the ceiling, causing one section of the circuit board to blow. An external spotlight had collected water in the bulb and that blew another section of the safety switch. But I digress. Dinner began pleasantly enough but not before too long, the old mother began a tirade of complaints about her bad son. The litany of misdeeds shocked him. Her perception of him was not the filial son he thought he was. Shocked by her reality, he flashed a pained look on his face and turned his lips downwards in despair. Her voice was stern and increasing in decibels. Reminding himself of the futility of arguing with the aged, he hugged his mother tightly and kept repeating the same words, “Ma, don’t push me away. I am a good son. We all love you.” The most amazing transformation happened. As if he had tugged the right chord. Her maternal instincts returned and she trembled and teetered as she hugged him back, for a long time.

The taxi ride and waiting time at the airport took longer than the actual flight itself. The old man and his Mrs desperately needed the change in environment. Stuck at home just the two of them without any respite from each other, they were often gnashing their teeth. With nerves frayed and patience ebbed close to zero, the excitement of a short holiday was enough to bring a smile to his Mrs. She soon became her chirpy self and chatted incessantly with their niece who was seated next to her. The old man chose to read a novel about unfulfilled love stories of a few Japanese college students in the 70s, with two key characters ending their own lives by the time his short holiday finished.

The old man took the easy option and hailed a cab as they stepped out of Tullamarine Airport. A red SkyBus would have been just a third of the cab fare and maybe even saving him half the time it took. Melbourne could have easily dished out its dark angry clouds and swirling cold winds from the south. Instead, it sent out happy floating white puffs in a sky of still blue and beams of gentle sun rays to welcome the newly arrived. The cab fare to Brighton East was $100 but the old man did not even flinch at it, such was the thrill of a rare holiday. Their first stop was a lunch appointment with a dear friend whom the old man had known since 1990. It was such a joy for him to see Les and Adele that his heart strings tugged so strongly his lower lips quivered uncontrollably and his tear ducts worked overtime. He noticed Les had walked a few steps ahead to stop his raw emotions from breaking down. The friends had not met for over five years. In that time, both had aged considerably. Les had turned as bald as an unshaven Bruce Willis and as unsteady as a mountain goat on ice. Adele was her usual happy self. She cheerfully and playfully pulled the old man to one side and told him he would have melted her girlfriends’ hearts had she introduced them to him years ago. “You’re very attractive,” she jokingly said as she held his hand and posed for the camera. Tell an old man he is attractive and he will be your best friend forever. The old man reminded himself to use those lines he had learned that day on the next reunion with old friends. “I luuurve your shirt,” Adele added. “Where did you get it from?” He did not bother to tell her his RM Williams denim shirt was a gift from a sister who paid $20 for it in an op shop. ‘Op shop’ sounds better and more dignified when referred to as opportunities to get a bargain and save the environment. ‘Op shop’ is a cool way to not stigmatise oneself as an Aussie battler who resorts to buying second-hand goods from thrift shops or charity stores. Lunch was the first meal of the day for the old man, it was superbly cooked. The men had Fish of the Day, the salmon was perfectly pink and the skin was crispy. The girls had Caesar salad – for some reason, greens made the girls happy and contented. The Mrs knew they had a big dinner to go to later that night, and wisely abstained from a heavy lunch. It was all too soon that the goodbyes had to be said and the old friends hugged one another tightly and promised they would not wait another five years for their next meeting.

At the Airbnb place, the old man struggled to retrieve the keys to the unit from the locker box outside the building. His Mrs grew impatient and even the heavens began to spit at them with tiny raindrops. “Hurry or we will get drenched,” she said. “You know I can’t see well and it’s getting dark,” he said in a tiny voice, and sought understanding from her. He finally got the locker to open once he realised he had used the wrong combination code to unlock it. “I never have to ring my own phone, how should I remember the last four digits,” he reasoned with himself once they were safely in the lift. Day one of their holiday was practically over by the time they woke up from their afternoon nap to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was at Matilda 159 in South Yarra. Famous for its open flames and hot coals cooking, the set menu was disappointingly missing all that. The old man was told that their only choice was a set menu, since there would be eight of them in their party. The pre-ordered tomahawk steak, extra to the set menu, turned out to be the best dish. The ambience was cosy and elegant when they began but the rowdy table soon made it like it was their own dining room and their own private restaurant. Undoubtedly, it was fine dining at a very high standard, but the old man who was more accustomed to the street foods of Penang was unimpressed with the small morsels and his Mrs frowned at the lack of greens. But, nothing could spoil their joy. It was an evening of special reunions and a celebration of the next day’s concert with Zubin Mehta conducting. The old couple had waited three long years to finally see their twin sons again. Covid had made it impossible for any reunions until that night in South Yarra. It was certainly worth the risk of catching the virus from the big crowds and long queues to finally hug their sons again. The boys left home at 15 to study in the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. For the old man, it felt like an eternity ago when after dropping them off at the airport, he returned home and stepped into their empty bedroom. He stood at the end of their bed and stared blankly at the darkness. Does the tiger roar in the jungle when its cubs grow up and leave? Does the swallow make a new nest when its young has flown away? Would a turtle stop its young from rushing into the sea? Aged 41, he was not ready to become an empty nester – eldest son was in first year uni and was hardly home. So, he cried till he ran out of tears.

The other special reunion that night was with his Mrs’ school chum and hubby. Esther, her school chum, was a really nice girl from a well-to-do family. His Mrs was born into a mediocre environment, made dire by a depressed father who resorted to alcohol to rid himself of his sorrows. His Mrs holds fond memories of Esther’s kindness and generosity. Her first chocolate with whole crunchy nuts was given to her by Esther. So was that “really big juicy Japanese apple,” so big she needed both hands to hold it in the school canteen.

Esther’s hubby goes by the name Frank. “Don’t ask me how to spell it or pronounce it,” the old man said. “At first, I disliked Frank,” he continued. “He was the reason why my life turned into a living hell.” “Why is that?” his niece asked him the following day. Frank was a champion of honouring his principles. If it meant he had to spend time in prison to uphold them, then so be it. All told, on and off, he spent 19 nights in jail. “Do you know why?” he asked his niece, forgetting she had already asked him why. Frank went to jail so that he could open his hardware store on Saturday afternoons. In those days, shops were only allowed to open on Saturdays till noon. The trading laws were restrictive and although Australia was a land of the free, no one was free to open their shops on Saturday afternoons or Sundays. “Frank changed all that!” the old man said, venting with annoyance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Penhalluriack

It meant he too was forced to open his shop, a price too steep to pay to remain competitive. It meant a life that was bound to his shop seven days a week. Owners of small businesses, usually the mums and dads that toiled to make a living, could not afford to pay their staff weekend penalty rates.

“Thanks to Frank, our kids grew up without spending their weekends with us,” the old man explained.

“It was a sacrifice that I had not planned on making,” he said. The old man had bought a shop for his Mrs to run, not understanding that retail laws could be changed by one stubborn man who insisted on fighting for his right to trade whenever he liked.

“I can’t imagine life today if all the shops closed on the weekends,” his niece said, effectively ending her uncle’s illogical remarks.

You can get a screw on Sunday but you can’t get a screwdriver.

Darren Hinch, on the Victorian government legalising prostitution whilst enforcing no Sunday trading for hardware stores

Zubin Mehta was the first thing the old man thought of the next morning. He watched a TV doco on Mehta a few decades ago (Portrait of Zubin Mehta (1968)) and promised himself to attend one of his concerts one day. It had appeared to be another one of his broken promises but suddenly, he came across a full page advert in The Australian a few months ago promoting the AWO’s major event of the year. “They are coming to Australia,” the old man said with glee, realising he could still keep that promise to himself. “Who?” his Mrs asked. “The AWO! The Australian World Orchestra,” he explained. The orchestra is made of Aussie musicians who are based overseas or have worked overseas. The international standard for classical musicians is of course very high and those Aussies who belong to the finest orchestras or ensembles across the globe will naturally be of exceptional standard.

Two principal cellists with Maestro Mehta during a rehearsal break

“They are playing an all-Strauss programme,” the old man said excitedly. “Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, which has lots of beautiful solo violin parts,” he said. All the more that Mehta matters. After all, the maestro is famous for his interpretation of operatic music. He admitted that he wanted to become a conductor because “deep down, I wanted to conduct Richard Strauss’s tone poems.”

“Hmmm, a pity it’s not Strauss’ Don Quixote which really shows off the cello,” the old man said. “Cello solo on one half and the violin solo on the other would have been perfect,” he added but his Mrs took no notice of him. She was too accustomed to his uninformed notions about things. And as for finding a programme wanting, it is like criticising a music director’s or an artistic director’s credentials! “Just ignore me!” he quickly backed down.

Cello section of the AWO during a break at the Sydney Opera House 2/9/2022

The concert was spectacular. The applause was massive. The night was a great success. Who else could have brought such an air of excitement and exuberance to a concert hall? The buzz even outside the building was electrifying. One could have been mistaken to think that it was a rock concert or an Emmy’s night but of course, a casual observer would have noticed the coiffured old ladies in their elegant evening wear could only mean an extravaganza and a rare night out for the older folks. Men in well-tailored attire and high-street shoes also told the passer-by this was no ordinary show. The old couple and their two nieces did not look out-of-place as they arrived at the venue. The old man was noticeably high on energy, as if he had sucked in multiple puffs of the crowd’s energy. “What a privilege to be a part of this,” he thought to himself. A packed crowd, an adoring audience, everyone was at the edge of their seats ready for a first glimpse of the conductor as the door of the backstage opened. The hall witnessed a thunderous applause as Mehta slowly ambled with the aid of a cane to the podium and with care and effort, he stepped up to it and settled on his swivel chair. A worrying thought crossed the old man’s mind. “A swivel chair, how dangerous for an old man,” he thought as the crowd’s applause quickly surrendered to the conductor’s will. A hush enveloped the air as everyone waited to explode to the first sounds of the wonderful orchestra. Although sitting down, the maestro was undiminished in stature and was clearly in full control of the extraordinary musicians who played like a single body born to make beautiful music. Maestro Mehta dropped his baton before the music started but he would not drop his baton again once the music began. Known for his love for Strauss’ tone poems, he channeled his interpretation of the music without the music score. He possessed a phenomenal memory to remember every single note, rest bars and every musical phrasing for every single instrument with great understanding of the composer’s intentions. Mehta matters indeed.

Bravo! Bravo! AWO, with Maestro Zubin Mehta at Hamer Hall 31/8/2022
Bravo! Bravo! AWO, with Maestro Zubin Mehta at the Sydney Opera House 2/9/2022

The Demure Don’t Demur

The old man’s mother reached her century a few days ago. In cricket parlance, a century is a batsman’s dream innings, a cause for a massive celebration. The exuberance of the crowd would make it a big occasion for the cricketer to soak in the adulation. A performance that is often characterised by a doggedness in determination, flamboyance and ruthlessness in stroke-making, and patience in execution. It felt not so long ago that the old man’s mother was a demure young woman. Shy and quiet, she attracted the young man who was self-employed as a laundryman next door to her uncle’s dhobi shop. He had rented half the shop next door from the tenant who was struggling to prop up their business selling lollies and preserved knick-knacks such as sugar-coated nutmeg, dried mango, dried plums and other fruit pickles. She was sent to spy on his business by her uncle who worried that his business was losing its clientele. She reported to her uncle that he had nothing to worry about; the majority of his business came from wealthy plantation owners who played an important role in the rubber and coconut output of the country whereas the skinny lanky man next door merely catered to the locals, mainly poor Malays. ‘She will be my wife one day,’ the neighbour said to himself the moment he laid his eyes on the nubile young woman who was still in her teens. Realising that her efforts at espionage had been uncovered, the demure woman offered a sugar-laden smile and coyly left her post. In her mind, she would have to find another hiding place the next day, surrendering to the notion that her task to spy on the young man would be a daily task, whether required or not by her uncle.

Much to the chagrin of the old man’s Mrs, she has always felt his filial piety took precedence over his love for her. “Of course not!” he cried out loudly in despair, but his pleading voice failed to convince The Mrs. A woman’s instinct is seldom wrong,” she said. The Mrs is a modern woman, being demure doesn’t cut it for her. The modern woman will speak her mind, and often, as loudly as possible, to win an argument. Her akimbo stance is a language that clearly tells the old man his Mrs is assertive and comfortable in her own skin, and will not take kindly to any egregious insults. Her extensive interests in politics, art, music, Chinese Classics, allow her to engage with anyone in deep conversation. When she turned 60, she decided it entitled her to speak her mind and not care about what people think of her. The modern woman will not hesitate to tell someone they are wrong and tear off their layers of pretence. But, for the old man’s mother, rarely was she heard and never did she hog any limelight in her heyday. Deep-rooted in the traditions of her parents who hailed from Ningbo, the old man’s mother perceived herself to be devoted, kind, and considerate. She could not see her imperfections, and therefore did not correct them – her doggedness about thrift and money matters, her ruthless accusations about her husband’s infidelity and her wasteful use of time as she patiently undertook her daily chores remain her major character flaws. Her name is Mei-Leh, in her dialect meaning ‘plum orchid’.

A party for her 100th birthday, not her 100th birthday party.

The old man was seated next to his mother at her 100th birthday party. In truth she has celebrated more than a hundred birthday parties. Being the matriarch of a big family, her birthday is celebrated at least twice a year, following the lunar calendar and the Western one. Her biggest pleasures in life is to be with her children and their off-springs. Any occasion that brings them together would please her no end. “She’s a party animal,” the old man told me. It soon became an appealing part of her nature, this love for parties invigorates her and perhaps is her elixir of life. “That’s her secret of longevity,” explained the old man, as he shoved a Hakka fishball from the steamboat pot that he had let cooled, into his mouth and merrily chomped at it. Her eyes closed tightly as she focused on chewing a sliver of beef, extricating every bit of taste from the crushed and thoroughly ground fibres and sinews of the meat. Even on her 100th year, she easily tires out some of her children. Just the other night, the old man had to bring his niece’s birthday to an abrupt end. It was a week night and he still had to rise early the next day to work. But, Mei-Leh was not pleased, to her it was only 10.15 pm as she patiently relished the last crumbs of the birthday cake – a chocolate mousse cake – scraping every bit of cream and dark chocolate from her plate with careful deliberation. Her mouth moved up and down slowly and deliberately as she ruminated on the crumbs, the rhythm synchronising her purplish lips and the surrounding wrinkly folds of skin deeply carved with creases as busy as lines of streets on a big city road map. Her edentulous mouth, nicely disguised with a full set of dentures, pursed occasionally but more often than not, it bobbed up and down in a fixed rhythm, quietly chewing her cake. It would be another fifteen minutes before she started sipping the tepid peppermint tea served by her grand-daughter before the birthday song was sung i.e. a good half-hour earlier. It would take three trips to the micro-wave oven to reheat her drink before she finally finished it. She examined the cup to satisfy herself that every last drop of it was consumed before she readied herself to leave. It would not be an Irish goodbye. As matriarch, she is accustomed to receive everyone’s undivided attention in the room, whenever she arrives or leaves a gathering. She lifted her left arm from her side without a word, but the old man understood clearly that she required him to help her up from her chair. He got her walking stick from the side of the wall and handed it to his mother. His duties, having being honed for many years, are perfectly understood and performed with utmost reverence and love. A request is rarely necessary, a command is superfluous. On their way home, the old man’s Mrs asked, “Why is it you can’t read my mind and know what I want?” The old man remained quiet all the way home. He refused to be baited into making a defence.

Great as heaven and earth are, people still find things with which to be dissatisfied.

Confucius

By the end of a meal, Mei-Leh is typically fatigued from chewing her food.

At 100, Mei-Leh is no longer demure. She decided she ought to free herself from the shackles of civility and be who she really is. When she turned 90, the old man took her aside and spoke at length about protecting her legacy and advised her to think of how she wanted to be remembered. “Don’t you want your future generations to know you as a loving and kind matriarch? A reasonable and happy person?” he asked. She didn’t answer in words that afternoon but in the following decade, she has answered him in spades by her actions. She didn’t care or isn’t capable of taking care of her legacy anymore. Ageing not only ravages the body but sinisterly, it ravages the mind too. We sympathise with someone who is physically impaired. We feel their pain when we see their missing limbs or cancerous wounds. Her damaged brain cells, invisible to us, are no less severe on her well-being yet we don’t acknowledge that advanced dementia is also a pitiful disease. Mei-Leh lives pretty much in the past; she speaks of names that the old man doesn’t recall and her failing memory has meant that he no longer can write her stories down with any conviction of accuracy. As if to prove he is right, those who aren’t demure do often demur. Mei-Leh had a big argument with one of her daughters this week causing her carer and companion to leave their house in tears. Despite her frailty and fainting spells, Mei-Leh refuses to be pacified, and maintains her rage at her daughter. “Wham!” she slammed at the dining table, treating her palms like a judge’s gavel. No further discussions will be entertained. The old man resigns himself to simply let her demur as loudly as she wants. After all, she is 100.