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.