Thinking About Thinking

Thinking aloud is allowed. Unfortunately, the noisy chatter is annoying my neighbours. The Mrs had not sat down to watch a movie with me ever since the pandemic caused such a panic. Last Friday, she caught a glimpse of Line of Duty Season 4 Episode 5 with me, and promptly sat down to finish the episode with me. It was intense! Some of you may think it was the close proximity to the woman that I meant. Perhaps. I had planned to commence Season 5 this week, but she wanted to watch from the very beginning, from S1E1. So, dutifully I am re-visiting the stories. A most compelling story about AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the U.K. police, Line of Duty. Is it my duty to accompany her though? So, it got me thinking about the concept of duty. I am known to be a filial son, yet the things I did for my parents were acts of love, not duty-bound. I think there is a big difference between an act of love and an act of duty. A duty is a moral or legal obligation, but sitting down with a spouse watching whatever she likes is an act of giving, willingly, happily and unconditional. Definitely not a duty. I half-expected The Mrs to lose track of the little details or hints of who the baddies were or what they were up to, but no. She was superb and I think she exceeded my own ability to notice the little nuances of the story – especially the part about the DCI’s secret affair with a woman. She nailed it well before I did.

Can we both be right? Just thinking aloud

Mandatory or not, mask-wearing has seen loud and somewhat violent protests, especially in the U.S. and they aren’t even mandated there. There has been much kerfuffle even in some parts of Australia about the forced limitation of movement and the requirement to wear masks. The tussle between ruling for the greater good vs rules to protect individual freedom and rights has continued unabated in Victoria. I think in the not distant future, people will read with disbelief that mask-wearing during a pandemic to save ourselves was such a challenging proposition.

Two days ago, the Federal government announced a A$3.5 billion upgrade to the NBN (National Broadband network). We have spent some A$60 billion for what will surely become an archaic system once 5G is universally available. Even before the first dollar was spent and the first bucket of soil turned, we already said it was a farce to invest in cables in the ground for the future. Free Wi-Fi was already available in some cities around the world back then at speeds that were not much slower than the promised speed of the NBN. This latest upgrade will deliver “super fast” speed to those who want them, said the Minister for Communications. Both my office and home internet have recently changed over to the NBN, after some coercion and threat of losing internet altogether, if we did not. Since then, we see a lot of the spinning circle on our computer screens and iPads. Is the operating system busy suddenly or has the NBN broken down again? Nope, our productivity has not improved at all with the promised higher internet speed. The NBN is a broken system, which has seen my staff busily making coffee and tea to keep themselves busy. I read that by 2023, the A$3.5 billion will deliver us FTTP. Impressive, with the media parroting about the promised “super-fast speed” without questioning how fast fibre-to-the-premises actually will be. At the moment, our NBN is fibre-to-the-node and then copper to the building. It delivers 100Mbps, i.e. slow. With FTTP, it will become “super fast”, i.e. 1Gbps or ten times faster. Yippee! Until I read that 5G’s speed is 20Gps – that is right, today’s 5G is already 20 times faster than what our NBN will be in three years’ time. It is no wonder Malcolm Turnbull banned China’s 5G from coming, on the pretext of security concerns. I think he meant it was to secure our NBN’s lifeline, to prevent it from becoming a white elephant before the project is even completed.

A very good mate, Mak, sent me a video-clip about the Dhamma’s way to find happiness. He apologised for regularly sending me talks on Dhamma or Buddhist teachings as a way of life. Usually, unsolicited lengthy messages are frowned upon – especially when we are pre-occupied or disinterested in the subject matter. I told Mak, no worries. I enjoy these Dhamma clips, initially out of curiosity but now as a source of knowledge. I was brought up by my mother to pray with joss sticks but there were no deep teachings and philosophical ideas imparted by the adults to a young boy, e.g. why pray when there is no deity in Buddhism? Who was I praying to? Also, the opposite premise was as equally troublesome for me. If the all-knowing God exists, why do we need to pray? Are we not too presumptuous to think the all-knowing deity needs us to tell Him all our woes, wishes and wants? Why waste His time and tell Him what He already knows? Please correct me if I have used the wrong gender pronoun. (Why are there no gender-neutral pronouns for God?) Anyway, back to Mak’s Dhamma clip. I couldn’t get past the first two sentences that asserted we only find happiness when we stop thinking. Peace of mind brings calmness and this is the core of happiness. Sounds easy. Stop thinking and we find happiness? Luckily, with a free morning, I was able to prod Mak for more answers. That required thinking for both of us. I don’t know about Mak, but I think I got some happiness out of our discussion. Thinking about thinking. Why does the Dhamma teach us that thinking will lead us away from our goal of finding happiness? We did not cover the next subject of the video-clip which was about wisdom. The core of wisdom is in the Four Noble Truths. To enlighten ourselves, we need to understand what is suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to end the suffering. To end the suffering, we have to get to Nirvana and it is all paved for us very clearly in the Eight-fold path. The path is all about goodness. Wholesomeness. Good viewpoints, good values, good speech and good action. Coupled with good livelihood and effort, we are well on our way once we also heed the teachings about good mindfulness and good meditation. We will reach Nirvana if we stay on this good path to truth. We didn’t discuss wisdom at all because I couldn’t get past the idea of the need to stop thinking. The message rings unabatedly in my mind. “When the mind stops thinking, that is when you find real happiness”. Mak added it is the proliferation of thoughts and the mindless chattering of the unwholesome types that crack our calmness. Unwholesome thoughts will lead to unwholesome actions and words. Eventually, that person’s life is unravelled and misfortune will strike. I suppose that is the theory behind it, and who can be happy after that? I suggested that “contentment” has to be a big part of the equation for happiness. If we are not contented with our lives, how can we be of calm mind and spirit? I honed in on Mak’s remark that it is “unwholesome” thoughts that lead us away from happiness. I reckon the evil ones can also be happy with their unwholesome thoughts, right? As long as they are contented, baddies can still find happiness, irrespective what makes them contented. It cannot be true that bad people are all unhappy, surely? Can baddies have peace of mind? That, I don’t know. As long as people, good or bad, are contented with their actions and thoughts, they will still have a chance to find happiness. That’s what I think. Proliferation of thoughts is discouraged in the Dhamma. When the mind stops thinking is when we find happiness. I can’t understand that. Isn’t the opposite true? That we cannot be calm if we can’t think and discover the answer? Did the Buddha not have to think a lot to discover the Four Noble Truths? If we all choose not to think and our contentment leads us to complacency and inaction, what will humans become? Stupid and lazy? Unproductive? Unprofessional? Regressive in technology and medical knowledge? I suppose there is a counter argument that technology has not done humanity any favours with all the destruction and death that technology in the wrong hands brings. Medical knowledge has also been abused with the use of biological warfare and accidental releases of deadly pathogens. Is it the heedless, mindless and undisciplined thinking that the buddha discourages? There has to be a mindful way of thinking then. A conscious reflection on thought itself? Yet, in reality when we try to focus on a thought, that very attempt makes it elusive to capture it in a mindful way. Isaac Newton revealed that it was sitting under an apple tree that gave him that “AHA!” moment in defining the law of gravity. His success came not from deep analytical thoughts but from being knocked on the head by a falling apple. It was already said that the apple tree is the tree of knowledge – precisely why Eve ate the apple despite God’s command not to. The other important tree for us was of course, the Bodhi Fig tree for without it, we have to wonder where Siddartha Gautama would have got his enlightenment.

The Dhamma tells us to stop thinking, whereas Western philosophy is all about critical thinking. It was the ancient Greeks who laid the foundations of Western philosophy, from the search for personal happiness to issues for the greater good, a selfless sense of duty for society. There was also the concept of Stoicism – that we are part of nature, not above it, and should therefore live virtuously. First Son often reminds me we cannot control what others say or do to avoid being hurt. But, what we can control is how we react to them. Be stoic! It was the French who first promulgated the idea of freedom and personal rights. Voltaire and Rousseau were the poster-boys for the revolutions in France and America. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chain”. By that, Rousseau meant that it is the government that takes away our personal freedom for the sake of a social contract with society. In Britain, Hobbes saw the dangers of natural rights for the individual and argued that it is the sovereign state that holds the power to exercise the rights for the good of society. He did not trust the selfish, evil and violent nature of urghhlings. John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker, went the opposite way. Under natural law, we all have the right to property, freedom and life. Under his social contract, the people have a right to rise up and bring down the government if it acted against its citizens. Locke asserts that we have the right of revolution. My favourite philosopher is René Descartes. I am forever grateful to him for proving my existence. We exist because we think. “I think and therefore I am”.

So, why is the Dhamma against “proliferation of thoughts”? Do they mean disorganised thinking leading to disorderly conduct? Mak said, “Proliferation of mind brings about more discontentment as the more you seek, the more desire and never-ending goals you will have. The mind gets agitated as our desire is not satisfied. Contentment breaks the desire for more.” Can desire for knowledge be bad though? So, humans should stop thinking? The ability to think, plan and execute our plan is the special trait of humans. The ability to verbalise our thoughts with language is what has placed us at the head of the food chain in the animal kingdom. It is our ability to think and communicate a detailed plan to our people that has us leading in the evolutionary race to unchallenged superiority. That is, until we created AI. Artificial Intelligence is far superior in the ability to think, research and remember everything, and execute their plans perfectly every time. Ok, the Dhamma is right. All this thinking isn’t very calming! It is clear that we control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our mind is churning away subconsciously. Slips of the tongue, accidental body gestures, day-dreaming and unintentional actions are all examples of the cluttered mind.

Question: What is the core of happiness? What is the core of wisdom?

Ajahn: The core of happiness is calm, peace of mind. When the mind stops thinking, that’s when you find real happiness. And the core of wisdom is the Four Noble Truths. If you understand the Four Noble Truths, then you have the wisdom to overcome all of your suffering, to get rid of your suffering. So, this is what you need, two things. You need complete calm which is samādhi and you need the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Dhamma in English, Nov 14, 2017. By Ajahn Suchart Abhijāto
Latest Dhamma talks on Youtube:

Hysteria About Wisteria

“Hey Cuz, I can’t wait to see your Listeria bloom!” a cousin sister exclaimed last week. A biochemical scientist, it is no surprise she had bacteria on her mind rather than flowers. Listeria infection, although uncommon, does raise its ugly head every year. One year, it was bean sprouts. Can you imagine no raw bean sprouts with your pho? Disappointing – pho just isn’t the same without that sweet, green taste of sprouts. Last year, it was rock melons that made headlines. We did not return the one we bought from Coles because it was already inside our tummy. Trust your nose, your eyes, and your taste buds. We can smell them, see them, and taste them, surely! My cuz will tell me off for peddling such silly notions. A few years ago, we found a fridge-full of deli meats and the most expensive Brie and Camembert in a local supermarket bin. There were pâtés and smoked salmon too. A quick guesstimate told me there would have been easily $2,000 in that bin. My body was half-inside the bin, reaching for the discarded veggies at the furthest corner of the bin. The thought did cross my mind. $2,000 worth of goodies and I’m picking damaged vegetables? See, they are for the chooks. They won’t succumb to Listeria, right? No risk to them. Unfounded theory, that. I love them but isn’t it careless of me? Callous? Why have I not researched into this? What if they die of Listeria-poisoning? I did have a pet chook when I was a young boy. I singled it out to Yong Jie, our family maid, that it was not destined for our dinner plate. Based on my childhood experience, no birds died because they were fed rotten fruits and vegetables. You could give them overnight rice that had gone off also. They will choose what is edible and leave what’s bad for them. There! That’s my research. But, my childhood experience also taught me that chooks kept for the family were only temporary pets. All birds die because they are destined for the oven or hotpot. The Mrs and I keep four chooks. One of them is a poor layer. “Off with her head!” I would threaten her indirectly – the chook I mean. Said numerous times in jest, I now make this solemn declaration that all my chooks will die a natural death. By natural, I do not mean they are naturally destined for the oven. If you Google the pros and cons of binned food, Google will ask “Did you mean: pros and cons of canned food” No one discusses the benefits and risks of consuming binned food. The abhorrent waste of throwing away food should be a crime. According to Rabobank’s 2019 Food Waste Report, Aussies are the fourth worst culprit of throwing away food, despite only being the 55th largest country by population. We bin about $10 billion of food every year. We clog our landfills with food that was once perfectly edible. The concept of wasting precious earth’s resources and wanton animal sacrifices is not lost on me. Water shortages, political stoushes about the unfair allocation of water from the river systems, and uncontrolled bush fires hog the headlines every year. It is clear food waste is a contributor to the ecological disaster we are experiencing today. COVID-19 recently showed the ugliness of earthlings. We panic too easily. All over the world, urghhlings went on a rampage and emptied their supermarket shelves of toilet paper and food. Toilet paper does not have a shelf-life. But, stock-piling on food? Food has use-by-dates, it is foolish to stock up on perishables. The panic-buying frenzy led to the eventual binning of food. I get it – there is a strong argument to not waste food, but some go even further. They collect binned food for their personal consumption. I have seen people loitering near my local supermarket’s trash bins waiting for the next new batch of food wastes. One of them even drives a Mercedes. I assume she collects them for the needy and desperate, and not for herself – otherwise it is greed and not the disguised claim of saving the climate. Leave them for the poor, why deprive the poor of food we can afford? In any event, it is risky. A power outage or for whatever reason that food susceptible to the Listeria germ is left unrefrigerated for hours, will mean a big harvest for these bin-divers. Unlike my cousin sister, I hope there is no Listeria bloom with the warm weather upon us. The poor and vulnerable do not need another threat to their health. COVID-19 is bad enough.

September 11 2020. A Wisteria bloom.

September 11, 2020. “Hey, cuz! Here is my Wisteria bloom, finally.” Every September 11, the world pauses to remember those 2,977 killed during coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists using four hijacked planes. Purportedly. There are also the many accounts by very reliable witnesses that the towers were brought down by bombs that were part of a “controlled demolition”. We all remember how the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. But, very few remember the collapse of Tower 7 which housed CIA and Secret Service offices. Tower 7 was not hit by any aircraft, yet it too imploded in a free-fall. Neither before nor since 9/11 have fires caused the free-fall of steel-framed high-rises. There is a report titled “15 Years Later: On the Physics of High-Rise Building Collapses” which earned the signatures of 2,936 engineers and architects. One paragraph said “the head structural engineer (of the Twin Towers), John Skilling, explained in an interview with the Seattle Times following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: “Our analysis indicated the biggest problem would be the fact that all the fuel (from the airplane) would dump into the building. There would be a horrendous fire. A lot of people would be killed,” he said. (But)“The building structure would still be there.” (emphasis is mine). In other words, the fire (and resultant high temperature) alone could not cause the free-fall of the whole building that we all witnessed. Link:”

We all watched in disbelief as the towers collapsed like a deck of cards. It is too far-fetched to think that these towers could fall to the ground in a matter of seconds once some of the upper floors gave way unless the rest of the lower floors were blasted by the precise detonation of bombs professionally placed on the structural columns. I am neither an engineer nor architect. But there is a body called the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911Truth). AE911Truth posits that there is sufficient doubt about the official version of 9/11 and that a new enquiry should be called to examine the possible use of explosives to cause the collapse of the three buildings. Aside from this controversy, we must remember that people continue to be killed from the resultant War on Terror by America. Over 500,000 killed and over 6 million have been displaced from their war-torn countries ever since the US attacked Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. Let us pause a little bit longer on 9/11. Link:

I have lived in this suburb of mine since 1996. Prior to that, I did hear my brother mention the sighting of brown snakes in his garden. He has lived here for 14 years longer. I suppose he has seen a few of them. The Eastern Brown is the second most venomous snake in the world and they are very common here in South Australia. My brother demolished the quaint white cottage he had and sub-divided the land. I liked the design of the two Federation houses on his plan. Pa encouraged me to buy one of them. I did not need much encouragement for I have always liked the architecture of such homes. The previous owner of the land was an English botanist – which explains the rare plant specimens we have in our garden. I discovered not only are there poisonous snakes here, some of the plants too are poisonous. Our kids were toddlers when we moved in. So, I chopped down a Brugmansia, the Angel’s trumpets. The Mrs and I could not risk the chaps ingesting them should they decide to mimic their mother and cook garden weeds whilst left unattended out there. I used to play “masak-masak” (cooking in Malay) when I was a kid. Start a fire, find a discarded condensed milk can, and chop up some Morning Glory vines to cook. I didn’t have to worry, the chaps did not have such an inclination. So, the Brugmansia died in vain. Little did I know there are more than 1,000 species of plants that are toxic to us. I still have the Oleander in the garden. And of course, the Wisteria. Every part of it is toxic, especially to dogs! I am beginning to think the garden is a dangerous place. Before we put on our gumboots and gardening gloves, we unfailingly examine them for any signs of spider web. The dreaded redback spider loves dark, damp places to hide. They are another highly venomous resident of South Australia. Also known as the black widow, I think it is an unfortunate name that wrongly tarnishes widows. When our new neighbours moved in on the other side of our house, we assured them we do not have snakes here. See, we have blue-tongue lizards out there on the moss rocks, warming themselves in the sun. That was something the old Aussie cobbers used to say. If you see blue-tongue lizards, it means there are no brown snakes. I rationalised (wrongly) that the blue-tongue lizards must be predators of brown snakes. Last Saturday, I was horrified to see a brown snake slither silently towards the Mandarin tree right in front of me. A good 3-feet long, I was told it is a mature snake. Its skinny body showed that it has just awakened from hibernation. It is a myth to think snakes are slimy. This one had beautiful dry scales. I was sure the poisonous snake would be ravenous and wisely kept a safe distance. That to me was some 15 feet away. It took me mere seconds to retrieve my phone from my desk. I wanted to take a photo of it to prove it was an Eastern Brown. But, it was nowhere to be seen when I returned. What do I do now? Was it just a figment of my imagination? Was it just a brown garden worm? Will anyone believe me? I was concerned for my chooks. Eggs and mice would be perfect food for snakes. Eggs can’t run, they are even more ideal for snakes. I suggested to The Mrs we should get some sulphur powder. Not a good idea, she said. She did not want sulphur to be blowing in the wind. “What about an electronic snake repellant?” Little Sis joined in. Luckily I googled before parting with my money. Reviews show they do not work. The pulsing vibration does not fool a snake. They have a much heightened sensory system and can smell a rat a mile away. They are territorial also – they “own” six neighbourhood plots. The female does not stay with her eggs or nurture her young. Lay and say bye-bye. After I cleared away the overgrown vegetation and rotting pallet wood left in a pile from years back, I called in the snake-man instead. When one runs out of ideas of what to do next to scare off a snake, the next obvious task is to catch it. The snake-man goes by the name of Rolly. Rolly belied his name – he isn’t roly-poly at all. He lived in Cambodia for 12 years. He told me he would go to the snake market once a week to buy up all the snakes he could get. “Why? You eat them?” I asked. No, he loves them and sets those destined for the dining table free. I told him we have not sighted any blue-tongue lizards for over a year. That proves to me the old cobbers were right. See a blue-tongue and you won’t see any snakes. Rolly said the opposite is true. Snakes love to eat the lizards. If you see lizards, you will find snakes. Predators flourish when there is food. I was quick to retort that it is the presence of blue-tongues that tell us there aren’t any snakes around. If there are predators, you would not see their food lazing about, sun-baking in the sun. Rolly looked at me and said nothing. Snakes are defensive, not aggressive creatures. They have numerous predators such as lizards, birds and mammals, and fear anything bigger than themselves such as humans. But then, which animal does not fear urghhlings? Snakes are a bit like me, they will always choose flight over fight, and only act aggressively if they feel threatened. They are usually shy, quiet animals and are efficient predators of rodents such as mice and rats. A pet to keep, perhaps. Rolly set a trap near a compost bin by the chicken run. Rats are attracted to the compost bin, but only if you foolishly throw meat scraps with your kitchen wastes. Snakes love to visit compost bins as it is their ever-ready food source. Worse news is that they are often found right under the lid of the bin, as the top section of the bin is the warmest. A horrible image appeared in my mind of The Mrs shrieking with fright whilst a snake was uncoiling its body with a sudden forward thrust. That horrible image was followed by even more horrible images of Rolly rummaging through the dense undergrowth with his bare hands. “Rolly, what do you think you’re doing?!” I cried out. “Looking for your snake, of course”, he answered. Silly man. We look with our eyes. Rolly has had many snake-bites, yet he still loves them. I had to remind him they are not love-bites. Spring is usually the loveliest time of the year to be out in the garden. This Spring, it feels different…..somehow. Overnight, the gully winds returned with a vengeance. The Wisteria bloom normally lasts a good three weeks, but they no longer look their best after the blast they copped. The hysteria about the missing snake has not subsided though. Rolly’s snake trap has not worked. There is simply no trace of the snake. Maybe it was in my imagination after all. Rolly said to call him when I find the snake trapped in the netting. I mumbled under my breath. “No chance, mate. The Mrs will cook soup when she finds it.”

Rolly found a long one, but it’s just the garden hose.

Snake-lover, Rolly, has had many snake-bites. Rolly, they aren’t love-bites.
A snake-trap sprayed with pheromones that smell like rats

Be Straight, It’s A Self-Portrait

Anne Koh's self-portraits depict 
A story about a pandemic
The virus causes much panic
Millions suffer, it wasn't just economic
The loss of lives, the most tragic.

Wear your mask, be proper
Wash your hands, the new order
Social distance, protect the elder
No hand-shakes, no kisses, don't wander
It's the MCO, Movement Control Order

They have a name for it, COVID-19
SARS-CoV-2, the virus found in 2019
They say it's from China, have you not seen?
From a Wuhan lab, a bat or a pangolin
Quarantine, quarantine, where have you been?
Some call it the Wuhan virus, the Kung-flu virus
They use politics to divide China and us
Pay up China, it's your Coronavirus
Where is your abacus, it's not contentious
Their claims are atrocious, devious and outrageous
I do wonder what the future will hold
There is much unknown but let's be bold
Look after each other, are we callous and cold?
Follow the science and together let's grow old
Will we want our Covid stories retold?
Covid apps, lockdowns and contact-tracing
No more footy, concerts and social dancing
Forget hugging, friendly greetings and embracing
Refrain from public coughing, sneezing and rejoicing
Many are convalescing or desperately refinancing
Yet, heroes of civil rights are out there protesting
Their bloodletting and complaints most excruciating
Pity those whose landlords are evicting
Shopping mall owners aren't accommodating
Will a vaccine soon end the pandemic’s sting?
It is no big task to wear a mask
A smile beckons. She is safe, she reckons

Mum About Mum V

Ma turned 97 last week, we had a small feast at The Empress for our Empress. It is her 98th birthday today, so tonight’s party will be bigger. You get the feeling she is racing towards the century mark like a T20 cricketer on an adrenaline rush? Have a birthday a week, and anyone will soon get there quickly. I am just being facetious – idiotic, some will say. Today’s birthday is her real birthday. Ma observes the Chinese lunar calendar. Last week’s was more for us, the so-called “banana” generation. Those “white” on the inside but “yellow” on the outside. We only observe the Gregorian calendar. I should admonish myself, for I can never remember our “Chinese” birthdays, no matter how hard I try. Ma is 98, I think I should make it a point to know both her birthdays by now. Her “Chinese” one is on the 23rd day of the 7th month. The 7th month?! Isn’t that the month of the hungry ghosts? See? If we do not pause and think, we will never be enlightened. It is only now that I am aware Ma was born in the month when the hungry ghosts returned to our world and roamed for food and entertainment. It is deemed inauspicious to be born during this month but I think Ma has decisively put this theory in the category of “Fake News”.

My mother’s 98th birthday

Ever since Ma turned 90, we have been ordering the dish she enjoys on her birthdays – the dish is so politically incorrect I shall not mention its name. It is a soup that rarely meets Ma’s lofty standards. If it is poorly cooked, then it is surely a waste of a fin. The stock has to be rich, prepared with lots of chicken carcass. The viscosity must be perfect, not too runny and not too gooey. Generously garnished with real crab meat (none of that fake seafood sticks please), fish meat and chopped prawns and we are well on the way to please the birthday girl. Sprinkle a few drops of her favourite Martell XO on it, and you will witness her sweetest smiles. Last week, we celebrated her birthday with the politically incorrect dish. No exceptions, anyone who turns 90 and beyond deserves whatever they fancy. When someone reaches that landmark, they deserve special entitlements that we ordinary folk don’t. Who are we to say no to the most venerable? They have eaten more salt than we have eaten our rice portions. Our elders drummed this wisdom to us when we were kids. 我吃盐多过你吃米. Let us respect their age and experience. Maybe others will soon show me that courtesy also. I hate to admit it but I would love to be able to say to a young punk, “Hey, I have crossed more bridges than you have crossed roads! So, do not cross me now.”

Ma’s 97th birthday last week

By Ma’s reckoning, everyone has two birthdays a year. To her, it is the Chinese one that is the accurate one. It is based on the moon and for auspicious days, it is the moon she turns to. Yet, she remembers all our birthdays. By all, I do not mean just our lunar and Western ones, and not just her siblings’ and children’s. I mean all, including her elders – uncles and aunties, her nephews and nieces, and all her grand-children and her nine great grand-children. Whilst on the subject of dates, Ma with her photographic memory (until recently), remembered all of them – wedding anniversaries, the dates her eight children left home for the first time, our graduation dates, dates her grand-children graduated, dates her daughters residing in KL and London visited ( I am not kidding) and of course, bereavement dates of those departed. Ma has out-lived all her elders and most of her peers. She is very surprised she remains “not out” (in cricket parlance). She survived a childhood that was shortened due to poverty. The impoverished ones tend to grow up quickly. Deprived of a proper childhood education, she had to grow up quickly or wither, I suppose. She avoided the Japanese attack on China just before WW2 but she couldn’t avoid them when they bombed Penang. Worse was to befall her, as they dragged away her husband from their bedroom on March 23rd 1942. My generation has not experienced war first-hand, so we are totally ignorant of the sheer tenacity required to survive years of hunger and hardship. Years, not months. Years of total deprivation of anything that resembles a typical day here. There would be no waking up to a cacophony of busy cockatoos and kookaburras, no hearty breakfast to be made, and no guaranteed meals during the rest of the day, let alone the week. A walk in the park? Do not dream. A visit to the shops? Forget it. Wait for the telephone to ring? Turn the lights on when the day becomes night? No, no no. You avoid the Japanese. You keep to the clan – trust no outsiders, they may be the spies who dob on you, and accuse you of being a communist sympathiser. You hide from the Kenpeitai – those who would chop your head off, without any hesitation, without reason. You dress like a homeless boy, dirty and smelly so they won’t give you a second look. Forget the long hair and the cheongsam. You do not want to look attractive to anyone. You do not want to be seen. It is no wonder I, like all her other children, grew up to be poorly dressed and contented to be quiet in the background. Habits die hard, Ma still enthusiastically cleans her dinner plate at the dining table. Nothing is missed – the minutest crumbs of food and the most stubborn dried-up sauce that coats her plate will be lifted by some water or soup, before being scooped up gently with a spoon. No stress, no distress. Every drop is consumed purposefully. Ma is not known to be wasteful. All of us cannot understand her thriftiness but that may be because none of us have experienced a war.

I have wanted Ma to tell me more stories about Pa. Especially during the war years and also how he carved out a business that catered to the hotel industry in Penang after the war. What made them decide investing in coconuts and rubber was a good idea? What were the mistakes Pa made – did he fall into a financial hole like I did? Which of their children brought them good luck? Was I the one? Did my arrival trumpet the renaissance of commerce for them? They bore a child almost yearly. Which year brought them their first major contract with a hotel to manage their laundry and dry-cleaning business? I have tried a few times to get these stories from Ma’s memory bank but lately, eager she may be, she has been easily distracted by recollections of people or places that are merely foreign pieces of a jigsaw to me. I have not been able to get Ma to focus on stringing a few sentences about a single topic. I don’t think she is confused or forgetful. Rather, I suspect her mind is like one long movie with too many sub-plots to describe in one scene. Her hearing is deteriorating very quickly. Half a year ago when she was living with me during the first wave of the pandemic, I did not find her hearing seriously impaired. I did speak slightly louder than at my normal decibel, but I had to do that with The Mrs too. It was not untoward. Finding the right audio volume is challenging. Slightly soft and I’ll need to repeat myself too often. Slightly too loud and The Mrs will accuse me of shouting at her. “Why are you angry at me?” “Why can’t you be patient with me?!” “Why must you yell at me?” Why. Why. Why! At times, I get into hot soup also when mucking about with First Son’s pup, Murray. Pretending to be upset with him, I would scold him in a game. The Mrs would, of course, assume I was scolding her, and a war chest of words would soon fly like armed missiles my way. Sometimes I wish there is an invention that will allow me to adjust my voice box remotely so that my voice is always kind, calming and perfectly audible.

I bought a robot two weeks ago. The iRobot that it replaced didn’t last three months. Murray decided vacuum robots are just like brooms, mops and garden rakes. These utensils are aliens that must be destroyed on sight. Poor iRobot. Whilst diligently scoping the dining room, sweeping up dust and dirt, it got attacked from behind by Murray. It died a terrible death, mauled to pieces by a mad dog. I hope iRobot’s replacement will last longer than three months. I have named the Xiaomi robot Mimi. Let’s hope Mimi and Murray will be friends. I would hate to have to bury another robot so soon. Ma was impressed with Mimi. “How much?” She asked. “$399, Ma. Not bad” I replied. Ma said that’s cheap. She wouldn’t mind one too. I had already decided to buy her one, once I checked out how powerful Mimi’s suction was. Big Sis rang a few days later. “How much? $39, Ma said. Surely not.” “My fault, I should stop mumbling when I speak”, I said. Perfectly timed, Mimi’s twin arrived today, just in time to be Ma’s birthday present tonight. It is customary for Ma to pay for tonight’s birthday party. Ever since she turned 90, she no longer accepts Ang Pows (red envelopes that contain money) from us. “What was our custom in China, Ma?” I asked. “Didn’t the elders in Zhejiang gladly accept Ang Pows for their birthdays?” Apparently, they did. But they collected them and gave them to their community to build a road, a bridge or whatever the village needed to be replaced or repaired. “But, weren’t our elders too poor to contribute to such infrastructure?” I was bewildered to learn of such generosity during their time. I think Ma almost sniggered when she told me “Ala mak dongpeh”, Ningbonese for “We did not have Tungpan”, (Chinese copper coin or money) to celebrate their birthdays during those early years. No birthday dinners. Therefore, no Ang Pows were necessary.”

Ma’s 98th birthday tonight, so pleased with a big fat Ang Pow from Corinne, a favourite grand-daughter

The Nun, None The Wiser

I have watched six episodes of Netflix’s series Warrior Nun since the beginning of last week. That’s five hours of my life I have invested in this story. It is already past the halfway point of the Season One (I assume there will be a next), yet Alba Baptista, the girl who stars as the nun is still not yet a nun in the story and she is still none the wiser about her abilities as a warrior. I should have abandoned this story after the first 90 seconds of episode one, but my curiosity was aroused by the titles of the episodes, taken from verses of the Bible. I assumed they would be indicative of the plot in each episode. I was not wrong but I needed to check with Google to know the hidden meaning behind each one. So far, it has been mostly about the experience of a young virgin girl enthusiastically tasting the joyous and exciting temptations of a rebirth. It took a priest in a Spanish village to come up with the first meaningful sentence in the story so far. That was towards the end of episode 6. “Searching for oneself is a journey for a lifetime. Life is what happens in between.” Later, I dwelled on this and disrupted my sleep. Live, and may we then discover ourselves. Let us not focus too much in discovering who we are – it is more important not to miss out on living it and seizing the opportunities that come our way. The quest to answer who we are is best left till we have lived fully. Already into my sixties, I am none the wiser to know who I really am. I think I am a good guy but maybe my bad looks deceive The Mrs. She is still none the wiser too about who the real me is. Anyway, the final episode of the first season of Warrior Nun is titled Revelation 2:10. If you know the verse, then you’re already wised up to how it will end for the nun. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

Similarly, I was not enthused after watching the first episode of The Wire. First Son told me many of his friends reckon it is one of the best crime drama TV series ever made. It was based on the lives of real gangsters, so let us give it a chance to develop. Aren’t we curious about how the others live? I am prepared to risk or invest another chunk of my life just in case they are right. In one crime scene investigation, two detectives were figuring out how the victim died. I kid you not, the scriptwriter must have been on holidays the night before filming it. Maybe he was involved in a domestic quarrel and the only word in his mind was that four-letter word. That whole scene was just too easy for the two actors, all they had to remember in their conversation was that one word. F..k! Indeed! F..k, f..k, f..k f..k, f..k, f..k f..k f..k f..k, f..k f..k, f..k, f..k and so on. I was worried that if I kept following this series, my vocabulary would be drastically influenced by the scriptwriter or by the real gangsters. Both bad. I am still invested in this story after five episodes. When do we decide enough is enough? How do we become wise enough to quit before we lose even more? This time it may be precious time, but what about next time? Is anything more precious than time?

Investments. I am none the wiser also about how to make money make money. What about the waterfront land I bought for my retirement? When do we give up on duds? The Mrs often cried about my investment flops. For crying out loud, why have I not grown wiser? It needed her to threaten me with divorce if I did not divorce myself from the sharemarket. With global-warming, waterfront land will be the first to go underwater. Will this investment of mine, like so many others, also go under? The same goes for those so-called blue-chip shares. Time has chipped away their value so much that surely now is the time to let them go? Some of those shares still buried in my metal cabinet are of historical value only, as the once-respectable companies have gone bust a very long time ago. That was after the top executives got their big payouts and bonuses, of course. The paper certificates are worth less than toilet paper, for they are too coarse and hard on my body. Will somebody just tell me to bin them? I am none the wiser as to how to destroy this historical evidence of my ineptness in making money make money.

Give the story a chance to develop. It is rated 5-stars. It must be good, right? If we abandon it too soon, we might miss out on a good thing. Just continue for a little while longer. It will only get better. The best is yet to come! The same sentiments can be applied to friendships and relationships. Should we even begin a relationship? Is anyone ever worth it? There are so many books written about the incompatibility between men and women – we are planets apart. I mean, geesh. These days we are not even supposed to call our wife “wife”. The women think that is misogynistic. When the woman marries, she is upset she is suddenly someone’s wife. “You belong to him. He owns you!” As God said in Genesis 3:16, “I will make your pain in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” “Wife” has a weak-sounding “f” that does not do it for the modern woman. They do not intend to be mere chattels! They feel it is their time to rule and not be ruled. “Phuieeettt, do not call me your wife! I AM YOUR PARTNER.” When do we decide enough is enough? How long do we hold on to someone hoping that their incompatibility will disappear or the sparks, long gone, will come back? When should we quit a marriage? For decades, my habitual quirks must have annoyed The Mrs to such an extent that you would think she would have left ages ago. The loud noises I make in the toilet when I wake up, clearing my throat is what I mean. When I spit out the wastes after brushing my teeth, there is that loud growl accompanied by a necessary sound effect that I feel obliged to produce. “Kaurrghh…… Phuieeett!!” I am none the wiser why everything about me annoys everyone. Urghhling.

The other need many of us have is the need to win. My footy club must win every match they play. I wake up during the most unearthly time of the night to barrack for a team of players who may or may not have the interest to play at their best on the night. Yet, there I would be, in my pyjamas, shivering from the cold only the middle of a winter night can deliver. Cheering for my team, Manchester United. Inconsequential to my life really, whether they win or lose. Yet, the need to win or break records is in my psyche. I just went for a pee and strangely, I felt pleased the phone rang, yet again. The record of my phone ringing every time I am inside the toilet remains intact. Since I began working from home in February, my phone rings every time I am in the toilet. I am none the wiser why maintaining that streak pleases me.

The phenomenon of the tiger parent also stems from the need to win. A long time ago, I was with my family on the backstage of the Opera House. We were still celebrating Second Son’s big win in a national music competition when the lights were being turned off. The security guards knew how to disperse a party without uttering a single word. We all knew it was time to leave. But, I noticed one old Asian man sprawled his hunched sad torso on the stairs outside the green rooms. Totally dejected, the man was being comforted by a friend. Later, I found out he was the tiger father of one of the competitors. I reckoned he took the loss much more badly than his prodigious son. Many years later, his son quit as a lawyer and pursued his passion for music instead. I know of another who changed her profession as a hospital doctor in New York and realised her dream to be a stage actor instead. I am none the wiser why these tiger parents would damage their children’s dreams or passions by imposing their own unrealised goals on them. Why live a dream through their child’s life? It is right to expose our children to as many extracurricular activities as they like but the idea of letting them try a wide and diverse range of disciplines and interests should be to stoke their curiosity. Surely we are not to expect them to excel in everything, especially when they show absolutely no desire to want to continue. As with investing time on the Warrior Nun, sometimes we just do not know when to tell ourselves enough is enough. We ought to quit something or keep away from someone we don’t feel right about before we discover that we have invested too much that it hurts to quit. But, don’t ask me. Like the nun, I am none the wiser. When is the right time and which is the right one.

I have to add it is the same thing about weeding. Weeding the vegetable patch, I can understand. we don’t want those friggin’ weeds to be nourished with the detritus from our compost bin. It takes a season to prepare a good batch of compost; it would be foolish of us not to pull out the weeds! But, weeding the lawn? Why, right? Green grass is all we want to remind ourselves of the wealthy lords and barons of old England. Is it our sub-conscious aspiring to keep up with the Joneses of old, in actual fact, God’s soldiers – The Crusaders. The moment we pull out one little weed from our lawn is the moment we dedicate a lifetime to pulling the damn weeds. It’s just like pissing in the rain. The futility of aiming in the right direction to avoid my trousers getting wet has not escaped me. I am also none the wiser why The Mrs continues to pull out the weeds from our front yard. Even ma, at 97, is known to be highly addicted to the task of pulling little green seedlings out from her lawn. To me, green is green. It’s the colour we want.

In episode 9, the penultimate, I was flabbergasted the angel rescued by the nun justified the use of fear to gain power over the weak.

“Faith is based upon that which cannot be proven.”

“For without faith, there is no manipulation. Without manipulation there is no fear.”

“And without fear, there is no power.”

Blasphemous, I thought. I am none the wiser why the angel would voice these ideas to the nun. Maybe the final episode will reveal all. I can’t wait to know the truth! Revelation 2:10 can’t screen quick enough!

A teaser from episode 10.

Dazzled, Then Frazzled

I like to think that once upon a time, The Mrs was dazzled by me. A time when I could do no wrong and say no wrong. When everything about me felt right to her. When my opinions mattered, and were always sought. When to her, my crooked teeth were the only crooked thing about me. When all that hung around my neck was a little wooden gourd strung by a sweat-soaked thread and she would still be dazzled by me. When all I had slinging from my shoulder was a cotton linen bag. When the only jacket in my wardrobe was a hand-me-down, almost thread-bare, black cotton jacket that was too thin for winter and too thick for the rest of the year. When my oral hygiene was never questioned and chewing gum wasn’t necessary. When body deodorant was foreign to me and my body odour was never an issue. When she asked me to hang around a bit more, eventhough I felt I may have overstayed after a dinner invitation. Alright, it was a self-invitation. I visited her unannounced at dinner-time and told her I had not eaten all day. But as the years passed, my mere presence had become thorny, the theory I toyed with was that she had become frazzled by my voice, my hair and my words. By me, to be precise. But, I hang on to the idea that it is just a theory. Routine bores and mundane chores are energy-sapping. Maybe it is the daily grind that frazzles us.

When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, he dazzled the world with his freshness, his candid words and most of all, his aversion for stuffy political correctness. It was Trump who got most of us interested in American politics for the first time. The late-night shows were as hilarious as any nightly Seinfeld or M.A.S.H. episode. Trump promised to drain the swamp, build the fence, make Mexico pay for it and make America great again. But, we didn’t count on him to tear up the Paris Agreement on climate change or the Iran nuclear deal or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, or abandon the WHO in the midst of a pandemic. We certainly didn’t think he would risk a Cold War with China let alone a hot one. Least of all, no one expected him to let people die so that the lockdowns in place could be relaxed more quickly than justified. No one thought the most powerful country in the world would also be the worst in containing the pandemic. His political manoeuvres have been ugly and his disdain and disrespect for the law potentially destructive for well-entrenched U.S. government systems and protocols. It is fair to say the majority of Americans are frazzled by this man who has shown little ability to mend the many wrongs in their society. His law and order mantra has been possible only by activating his supporters to violently disrupt mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. Today’s COVID-19 count in the U.S. reached six million cases with a death toll of 183,000. Those not feeling frazzled there have got to be urghhlings!

When the first wave of the pandemic arrived on the shores of Australia in February 2020, we were all devastated by the unseen enemy. It was said life would never be the same again. To a large extent, that remains true. Melbourne is again under Stage 4 lockdown, businesses cannot open and are locked up for a second time. Many small ones have not survived, even with the government’s very generous stimulus packages. Many chain stores have called in the liquidators too. Futile fights with greedy shopping centre landlords have only prolonged the agony for shareholders. There have been reports of aggressive and abusive phone calls directed at the Victorian state parliamentarians from people who feel they have lost their freedom, lost their jobs, lost their human rights, or lost loved ones. Yet, not every corner of society is feeling the wrath of the virus. Pockets in the economy are actually doing exceptionally well. The world is seeing high numbers of unemployed and therefore, debt-collectors are rubbing their hands in anticipation of another boom. Gerry Harvey, founder of Harvey Norman could not hide his glee when he said “I’ve never seen anything like this” in his 60 years as a retailer. By “this” he meant the COVID-19-induced boom in home furnishings and electronics. As reported in the Australian Review, same-store sales have soared 40.9 per cent and 35.1 per cent in August in July despite the closure of 18 Melbourne stores. When we can’t travel overseas for our holidays, attend footy games or concerts, or dine out at our favourite restaurants, what do we do with all that stimulus money the government has so kindly given us? We spend it on our house and garden! The likes of Gerry Harvey are dazzled by the gold they have surprisingly found in their bank accounts. In my online business, I have found the local factories all struggling to cope with the prolonged surge in demand. Lead times for orders have ballooned from 2 weeks to 8-10 weeks for many popular custom-made products. Inventories of imported goods are becoming depleted, and supply is becoming very tight in most categories. My business too has been dazzled by a healthy increase in turn-over. We have, however, been pushed to our limits, coping with this unexpected surge in demand with the same number of staff. Now, we are beginning to look and feel frazzled. After all, it has been six months of unrelenting waves of unprecedented demand for our goods and after-sales service.

Yesterday, First Son introduced me to GPT-3. I was totally enthralled by it. The possibilities dazzled me, and then frazzled me. Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) is a language-based deep-learning computer model that uses ordinary words to write complex algorithms by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a matter of seconds. It is developed by OpenAI, a company started by Elon Musk. The quality of the text generated is already almost indistinguishable to that written by humans, but it is self-learning! So watch this space. Using simple English words, GPT-3 enables AI to do impressive work that not long ago could only be done by clever or tertiary-educated humans. Work performed by highly specialised professionals such as accountants, lawyers, doctors and medical specialists, web designers, translators, marketing and sales people, financial advisers, sharemarket brokers, real-estate brokers, etc, etc are all threatened. AI is not only more intelligent, it also possesses self-learning capabilities. Every job that is today done by humans is at risk since AI is faster, smarter and doesn’t forget and doesn’t need to rest. Initially, I was utterly impressed by GPT-3. Every job in my business can be taken over by it. The web design and development can be done in seconds. Live chats can be manned by AI – my customers won’t even realise it is not me answering their questions – all I need do is name GPT-3 after me! Telephone enquiries can also be performed by GPT-3 although I’ll need to tweak it to sound like me, with an Aussie twang laced with some faint Chinese and “islander” accent. Not so much from Manus, Bougainville or Fiji, but Penang. All communication by emails is easily handled by GPT-3. If it can pretend to be Tom Hanks and convince Tom Hanks himself, it can fool any of us when it pretends to be us. The AI researcher Eliezer Shlomo Yudkowsky observed that GPT-3 can even feign to be wrong. The deliberately deceptive AI troubled me enough to deliver me a sombre night last night. It is already capable of misinformation itself or fake information, we won’t just have State actors and hackers to worry about. With the ability to create portraits of people who don’t exist, it won’t be beyond its intelligence to create a video of a “real” POTUS threatening the world with tariff wars and trade wars. On second thoughts, we already have one. We won’t need GPT-3 to do that. Six years ago, Stephen Hawking warned AI will end mankind. But did he imagine in his wildest dreams that it can be so soon? Here are some words of wisdom from GPT-3. The first example to me is another deception designed to lull us into a false sense of security.

“AI will create jobs if it succeeds and destroy jobs if it fails”

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less”

“Art is what we do when we run out of useful skills”

“Science fiction and religion are focused on the same answer: the afterlife and the future”

“Responsibility is for the sane. If you’re crazy, you get freedom”

This last example is my favourite. “Music is the most advanced form of mathematics”

GPT-3 to me means AI will win against humans in any field, eventually. What happens to us when all our jobs are taken by AI? When the machines view us as superfluous to requirement, what will they do to us? I am feeling very frazzled now.

Check out what GPT-3 can do

First Son’s pup, Murray, likes to play golf when he is frazzled.

Three Stories One Ending

The Mrs has the sniffles and a mild cough. Yesterday, she was worried enough to broach the matter about getting herself tested for COVID-19. A clear-cut decision, if you ask any doctor. Go! Get the test! I erred yet again. Instead, I suggested her symptoms are of a mild flu. No fever, no loss of smell, no severe sore throat, and no run on the toilet paper at home. Better to rest than to test. But, I did not stop her from getting herself tested. The damage was of course done. I get it, it is not something I have a say in. I am so stupid. Little Sis said so. “Show that you care! Don’t make her feel like she’s a second-class citizen!” That was exactly how The Mrs felt. I thought I did the right thing by reassuring her she is safe, COVID-safe. Instead, she felt I didn’t care. Feelings… I should add to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s very useful quote. “Words are the source of misunderstandings”. Rather, it is “Feelings and words are often the source of misunderstandings”. That is my conclusion. Even with the best intentions, I often get myself in trouble simply because someone “feels” wronged. Maybe it is how I react to accusations. When a very good intention is poorly delivered, it perhaps comes across as insulting or denigrating to the receiver. Accusations fly like sharp darts back at the giver. Rat-a-tat-tat. Tit-for-tat. My reactions are disproportionately strong, loud and fast. For that, I am sorry. I now know it is the ego that is slighted. The ego is the one that causes uncountable damage to our lives. Live and let live. Let go, go with the flow. Be the pebble in the pond, stay down there. Don’t cause ripples. I mistakenly thought my ego was tamed decades ago. Oblivious of my environment, I have allowed it to fester and maybe it has been allowed to prosper. My environment? As a young accountant, I was soon head of the administrative and accounting arm of the factory I worked for. Nine years later, I became my own boss. The Mrs held the tile of Managing Director but my environment has been very much my own domain for many decades. I rule it with an iron fist and now I am aware of the damage that does to my ego. Has it always been my way or the highway? In my business, most certainly. I may have said to all my staff I have an “open-door” policy. But that is only because no one ever came to me with a better suggestion. Would I have entertained the idea that someone else knows better? Could I? I surely would. That no one came knocking at my door with a better proposal was certainly true until in recent years. First Son has proven he has many great ideas and he has executed them without fuss and commotion. The business, I know now, will be in very capable hands when I release the reins that I have clutched on so tightly from the beginning. Time to let go, go with the flow. Let the ego die.

Story by Yu Hua

Two nights ago, The Mrs asked me to put on a very well-written story she has been listening to for ma to watch on the big screen. Huo Zuo 活着 ,To Live. Many say the author, Yu Hua, deserves a literary award for it. Apart from Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian, the only Chinese writers to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, no other Chinese has been nominated for that award. Surely Yu Hua deserves it too. Zhang Yimou’s award-winning epic movie is 2 hours long, but it is over 7 hours shorter than the audio book. The movie stars Gong Li. She is enough reason for me to watch it. The story, narrated by a cadre who was tasked with collecting old songs and Chinese legends throughout the land, starts in the 1940’s before communism took over China. It was about the life story of an old peasant who was a travelling singer/puppeteer once upon a time. Prior to that, he was the only son of a prominent landlord in their township. Master ShaoYeh was a gambling addict who very soon squandered the family’s wealth. His father, the patriarch, died from rage and despair on the day the debt-collectors came. The matriarch didn’t survive much longer. To live. To carry on, to survive. ShaoYeh would live on to witness the despair, tyranny of poverty and war, and the demise of many of his loved ones throughout his life. The gorgeous Gong Li leaves him with their bubbly daughter soon after they were kicked out of their vast estate. But I knew she would reappear in the story, she being the star. ShaoYeh, now penniless, is given a set of paper puppets instead of a monetary loan that he seeks from the gambler who cheated him of his family’s wealth. That set of paper puppets is the means by which he ekes out a living as a travelling singer/puppeteer. War comes whilst he is touring the country with his band of musicians. He witnesses deaths by the thousands as the civil war rages. Eventually, he returns to his hometown and is reunited with his wife and their daughter, Fengxia, who is now deaf-mute due to a high fever. Gong Li is dishevelled and supposedly gaunt (although that still cannot hide her natural beauty). She looks shellshocked by the war but she is no empty shell, still with the vigour to support Fengxia and herself by selling hot water in vacuum flasks to the neighbours. Over the next decade, they live through a series of hardships, the death of their young boy being a real tear-jerker. In the book, his death is caused by medical negligence while donating blood to save a magistrate’s wife. But, his death in the movie is due to Shaoyeh‘s unfortunate decision to send him to school despite being without sleep for many nights. He is crushed by a careering truck whilst asleep by the side of a road. Another decade passes and life seems decidedly comfortable under communist rule. Maybe Yu Hua was required to rewrite history or his novel would not get published. In the movie, Fengxia marries an army officer with a very bad limp – a leg injury from the war? But, the movie retains some historical accuracy by showing the public humiliation of the elites, the intellectuals. scientists, doctors, scholars, professional musicians during the Cultural Revolution. One such person who is persecuted is the obstetrician of the local hospital. His absence from the maternity ward means that Fengxia dies during childbirth. The student cadres happily trumpet their success in delivering the baby son but they do not know how to save her. In the book, Fengxia‘s husband’s disability is a grotesque, crooked head, not a crooked leg. He dies in a construction accident and his son too dies an untimely death later – he chokes to death whilst eating beans. Gong Li too leaves ShaoYeh, succumbing to years of illness. ShaoYeh sees through his final years, filled with regret, sadness and loneliness. Life is a trap, either way he loses – had he not lost his family’s wealth, he would have been the aristocrat executed by Mao’s Red Guards.

Gong Li reminds me of Violet, my niece.

My mother related this story to Corinne, a favourite grand-daughter of hers last night. Ma hates the movie. “Why do you show me such a sad movie?” There is no hope, no promise of a better tomorrow. Just two hours of misery, tears and death. “No good!” I was having a cross-conversation with a brother-in-law at the dinner table. He was talking about the idea of doing up an old Kia Pregio and converting it into a camper van. If we cannot travel overseas for our holidays, if we dare not fly in a crammed aeroplane, why not visit this vast continent from the comfort of a camper van? “But, a Kia Pregio?” I asked. So, I found some reviews on-line about the Pregio and read them out. From one reviewer: “A few lemon issues, damn noisy valves, weak sheet metal, large areas dent easily, crappy paintwork, always changing tyres over, no aircond.” From another, “Driving for over half an hour makes you feel like screaming to block out the diesel chatter! Engine is awful, very noisy, gutless.” Hilarious was the third, “Radiators corrode very easily.
Parts are expensive.
Carpets are low quality.
Had an sudden failure with the alternator – it was giving too much voltage to the battery. Sulphuric smell everywhere in the car, the car battery was partly melted by the time I got to it.
Door handles break too easily.
Worst of all no workshop manual. All in all a total lemon , avoid avoid avoid.”

Right at that moment, ma exclaimed. “Bodoh!” In Malay language, it means stupid. We were not sure which story was stupid to her. My brother-in-law chuckled and was sure ma meant the absurd idea about the Pregio was stupid. Little Sis would suggest ma was referring to my idiotic outburst with The Mrs. If you ask Corinne, she will undoubtedly say it was the story “To Live” that was at fault. I still think ma meant me, the urghhling.

Be Patient With The Patient

“I AM HAVING A HEART ATTACK!” The Mrs woke me up with that scream one night some 13 years ago. Another false alarm. It wasn’t the first time – the third actually, yes I kept count. So, like the boy who cried “Wolf”, she failed to get me anxious and I pretended not to hear her cry for help. She sat up and whimpered. The sleep inertia broke my dreamworld. Even in my grogginess, I could sense that she was in genuine discomfort. Her difficulty in breathing was palpable. So, I labouriously pulled myself up and tried to calm her. “It is another panic attack, Doe”. I call her Doe, not a female deer but my female dear. Pa and Ma used to call each other “Doe” too. Theirs is an endearment shared only between themselves for over 65 years, from Ngeh Doe”, meaning blockhead in their Ningbo and Shaoxing dialect. The Mrs asked to be taken to the hospital but I thought the RAH would rather we did not, since they would have many urgent emergencies to attend to than waste their time on a false alarm. Besides it was about 4 AM in the middle of a wintry night (Ok, that’s a lie. It was late summer). I was quick to convince her a visit was not necessary. “Wait awhile, it will pass”. The lack of celerity on my part was unforgivable. As I write this, I realise the foolishness of my actions or rather, inaction. How callous, how lazy, how irresponsible. In an emergency, our loved ones do not expect us to be sclerotic. The many “What if’s” didn’t cross my mind then. Urghhling. What if it was a real heart attack! It is no wonder I seldom look into the mirror. I just cannot like what I see. My shadow self looms dark and large in the reflection.

It was nearly twenty-past ten on a bright autumn morning, still ten minutes before her appointment with the psychiatrist. She arrived at the blue-ribbon leafy suburb of North Adelaide. The streets were surprisingly quiet. She drove very slowly, noting the street numbers on every letterbox. She located the surgery easily. It was an elegant Queen Victorian-style cottage with a return verandah. Without any fuss, she turned her car which she calls “my old bomb” into the carpark reserved for patients only. The driveway and carpark were paved with white gravel. They crackled like popcorns bursting as the tyres rolled and stopped imperfectly in the parking bay. The adjacent car was parked at a even more pronounced angle. What is it about people who cannot park straight?

Hand of Fatima door knocker

This was the third psychiatrist The Mrs had to see. She pushed opened the heavy Jarrah door that had an antique brass knocker shaped in the Hand of Fatima. A good sign – the sign of God. Inside was a long corridor laid with stately plush Persian carpet. She could see doors opened on both sides. The first door on the left opened to the reception area. The receptionist promptly greeted her. Behind a French ornate chestnut desk, the woman in a smart navy shirt dress gave a slow and gentle smile and asked in a meditative silky tone of voice if The Mrs needed any help. The professionalism of the receptionist betrayed a sympathetic kind of gentleness – it was not so much from the heart. After all, every patient of the doctor has the same predicament. He is a honeypot for psychiatric patients. Her GP had arranged for her to be assessed for a probable mental disorder. Her mood swings, her bouts of breathlessness, and panic attacks were all tell-tale signs she needed proper medical care. Every patient who visits the surgery has to be treated with tender care. They know not to accidentally turn a patient hysterical. After her personal details were taken, she was asked to hang around in the waiting-room opposite. Besides the usual sofas and a coffee table full of magazines of all sorts inconsiderately messed up by earlier visitors, there were many paintings on the walls to keep her attention. She noticed that all the paintings in the three surgeries shared one similarity. The portraits were all distorted depictions of their subject. Like the one she was looking at. The woman’s head was lopsided, the right side about two inches too big. Her chin drooped so low it almost reached her navel. She held her baby by the head, a most uncomfortable posture that even a Yogi would find hard to do. The other painting depicted a man with one eye much higher than the other. If he wore glasses, they would sit on a 45-degree slope. A huge print of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss captivated her for much of the waiting time. How uncomfortable to be kissing in that position – the woman’s head was at a perfect right angle to her naked shoulder. She understood these were contemporary paintings. Everything was deliberately twisted, contorted, distorted and exaggerated, like her mind. While she was contemplating this, a short elderly gentleman with a bulbous reddish nose entered the room. After the normal greeting, he gestured her to his room. He was the psychiatrist, Dr. Curtis. His room was stuffy and too warm for her liking. She immediately noticed the big bar heater on top of his desk. Who uses bar heaters these days? She asked herself. This apparatus was highly popular in the seventies. Well, he looked nearly eighty. This must be the one thing left from his internship that still performs well.

With the real The Kiss

She sat herself down heavily on the only available sofa while he flipped through her file. As he made the occasional ‘um um um’ sound, she couldn’t help but notice his many photographs of boats or yachts. With zero interest in anything that sails, she could not tell one from the other. She turned her attention to the podgy man. He was a man in desperate need of a strict regime of healthy diet and exercise. It was obvious from the two buttons on his midriff that were close to escaping from the buttonholes. The long fin-shaped creases on the front of his shirt did not hide the turgid belly and fullness of the fat within. The tightness of his shirt and the stuffiness of the room immediately made her breathing laboured. She was hoping an oxygen mask would drop from the ceiling. “Excuse me, how do I pronounce your surname?” She opened her eyes. Dr. Curtis asked a familiar question every Australian she encountered would. The familiarity gave her a feeling of calm. It was something she could never explain, not even to herself, why she frequently experienced the rise and ebb of anxiety and calmness. That was the reason why she was sitting on the huge sofa. He went through the reports from the other psychiatrists to get her confirmation that everything written down was correct. Then he asked the inevitable question, “So, why are you here?”

When there is too much pain to carry, the best remedy is to forget. Yet, as a patient, that is precisely what we do not get to do. The doctor’s role is to prise out what is hurting us inside our head. Every scar, every wound, every bad memory safely locked away for good. Talk about our feelings, why we feel the hurt, what troubles us. Our troubles usually start when we do not value ourselves. Why will others value us if we don’t value ourselves, right? Take the baby-steps – treat ourselves with kindness and practise self-respect. If necessary, avoid self-criticism. Don’t call ourselves urghhlings! In our darkest moments, when we are most desperate, it is common to sink to the bottom and stay there. Recently, I discovered it does wonders for our mind and soul when we give, even when we think we cannot afford it. When we give generously, our body secretes oxytocin, a hormone also known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone”. It is the warm, fuzzy hormone that makes us feel loved and wanted. Maybe it is the natural anti-anxiety drug that we need.

Some of us believe we are equal, created equal. Even if that is so, life is hardly equal. The Gini index clearly shows the harsh reality. Many are still without electricity, running water and security of food supplies. Most are still without 5G whilst some still wonder what the internet is. The Mrs and I were both born in Malaysia. She, from the East and I, from Penang, in the West. The roll of the dice meant hers was a tougher road to travel than mine to get here. West Malaysia had better opportunities, better facilities and more pathways to a tertiary education overseas. She had to dropout early before sheer guts and determination and a kind fate brought her here. Whilst it could be said we shared the same life here, hers was again tougher and much more challenging. White society is less kind to a woman, particularly an Asian with a strong Chinese accent – the combination of which did not hold her well in the automotive business we ran. I suspect the frequent bullying, harassment, intimidation both by shopping centre management and unscrupulous petrol-heads were too much for her to handle. Even the staff made her life miserable. In the early days when we had a business partner, she would come home in tears. Even a business partner who was indebted to us, not just financially, could bully her. The 18 years she worked as a store manager in our business wrecked her emotionally. She was forced into early retirement from her “baby”, our first store in Prospect. Time has flown by so quickly, it was twelve years ago she sat on that chair as Dr. Curtis extracted and expugned the scabs from her life history. Maybe he did not, we are who our lives make us. The Mrs today is a fine, strong and confident woman. Emotionally balanced, she has got her assertiveness back and decidedly imbued with self-belief. I can hear her coming………quick, I am outta here.

Gini And The Genie

Recently, I came across the Gini Index. The report showed South Africa as the worst ranked country in the world, at 62.5. A measure of zero would be impossible, not even in a Marxian utopia as it requires everyone in that society to earn the same income. A coefficient of 100 on the other hand means one resident in that country earned all the income, and everyone else worked as slaves. I was immediately curious about how equal America was in “The Land of the Free” where everyone is created equal and all men are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights such as the right to life, liberty and to be yourself. The right to refuse vaccinations and not wear masks are more modern rights won by the Americans. The U.S. came in at No. 30, with a Gini index of 45.0, just a point and a half better than their current nemesis, communist China. Somewhat unexpectedly, as I assumed the communists would be a lot more equal with their reward system. The Philippines performed as badly as both these countries, at about 48.0. This was a surprise to me, for I expected that country to rank much more badly. I was in Manila in 1981 not long after the Marcos era saw the lifting of martial law. A few months after my visit, Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated upon his return at the International Airport of Manila after a long exile. As a young man then, I was shocked by the extremities of what serious economic inequality and abject impoverishment can do to a society. The wealthy dead were housed in air-conditioned mausoleums whilst the impoverished living were eking out a miserable existence, begging and annoying tourists for pittance before returning to their cardboard shelters on the roadsides and medium strips of major avenues as the day becomes dark. On our first night there, The Mrs and I didn’t feel very safe, although it must be emphasised that we were never harmed or threatened as we walked past those people on our way back to the posh hotel after a sumptuous seafood dinner during which we were serenaded by a Spanish guitar trio. Countries that allow the unequal and unfair abuse of their masses are tinderboxes for civil unrest. It is no wonder we watched the end of Marcos rule on TV after “people power” used yellow ribbons to topple the kleptomaniac who brought his nation into economic despair. It is also no wonder that today we see street riots, looting and violence on the streets of America as normal occurrences as in Hong Kong who are ranked loftily at no.4. Egalitarian countries are mostly European with scores of below 30. Such nations do not witness civil unrest, food insecurity or political upheaval. People who are fairly governed and treated equally do not have the need to start a rebellion.

Screenshot of Pengana International’s July 2020 Report.

The average Filipino’s annual income is 1/20th that of an American who earns USD67,427.The starkness can be better explained if we say an average Filipino needs to work 20 days to earn as much as an American who works one day and rests for the next nineteen. This is not the case for Ammie Lanoy. She works seven days a week for most of her adult life. Hers is a life that is much more challenging than that of the average worker in her country. I have never met Ammie yet somehow, her story has captured my attention. Her story deserves to be told for it is about the gutsy and admirable qualities of a woman’s determination to provide hope against all odds and ultimately, win reprieve from abject poverty for her family. A magical genie, that is how I see her. Early life with her loving parents was as safe and comfortable like that of a genie’s in an oriental bottle, but once she fell in love with the man who would become her master, her role became those of a genie who was summonsed to obey her master’s commands. To be fair, I think she performed incredible feats to rescue her family from the tyranny of poverty and hopelessness, not to satisfy the whims and wishes of her husband. Once out of the comfort of her parents’ home, she has not stopped working. She has not stopped giving. Ammie was born on October 31, 1963, at Union, Dapa, Surigao del Norte. The 8th and youngest in her family, she finished her grade school at Union Elementary School and High School at San Nicolas School. She dropped out of the Bachelor of Science degree after one semester at the Mindanao State University. A common reason that bedevilled most Asians – the tuition fees and living expenses were simply unaffordable for the family. After she dropped out of uni, she washed dishes in a school canteen in Manila to help her parents make ends meet. Eventually, she became the assistant cook of that school canteen and life appeared promising at last. She was able to save up enough money to buy a small plot of land at their local village (barangay). There, she met Elenito P. Lanoy who would become her lover and later, father of their two children. Somehow for those who lead tough lives, they would go on to meet bad luck or bad people. In her case, Ammie’s husband turned out to be an alcoholic. Drunks are often unemployed and for many, their circumstances worsen as the brutality and harshness of a hard life take hold. They usually become unemployable and their resultant anger at the world typically makes them violent and unpredictable. What does a woman do when her husband is unemployed? She compensates for his incapacity, bad luck or laziness. She works and works, and works some more. Even when she was heavily pregnant with child. Even immediately after child-birth. What does a mother do when the father of her children is a violent drunk? She takes the beatings instead and she makes sure they are not within his striking distance, even if it means they sleep outside their house on the verandah. When Gladys, their first-born turned 7, they uprooted from Manila and returned to Siargao Island. Life improved somewhat, the drunkard became a fisherman and Ammie by then confident of her cooking skills, prepared viands and sold them to every house in their barangay. If you peer hard, you’ll still see the millions of her footprints she made on that dirt path. A road that turns soggy and muddy when the rains come, it is as uninviting during the dry season, as it throws dust and fine grains of sand into travellers’ eyes. A viand could be a meat, seafood or a vegetable dish that is served with white rice. She carried the heavy load of viands with both hands as she walked the many kilometres every day, selling her food that she had toiled for much of every morning preparing and cooking. Her daily journey began at the school because many of the teachers were her customers but it was always necessary for her to traverse the whole barangay and not return home until mid-afternoon for her viands to be all sold. Her viands made her a reputation as a very good cook and eventually, she became the food caterer for local weddings, birthdays and festivals. To both their children, Ammie is their sole parent. The drunk by definition is stupid to let himself drink to a stupor. Gladys today works as my virtual personal assistant/office administrator. It still amazes me that she can be on the other side of the world yet work together with her colleagues who are based here in Adelaide. According to Gladys, her mother survived everything for them. Hurricanes, earthquakes and beatings, I suspect. Everything. Ammie even pawned her house and land, for their education. I am so glad for Ammie that they both graduated from college. Money well spent! Today, the sun finally shines on Ammie. Gladys has managed to buy back her mother’s house and land from the pawn-shop. Last week, she got an interest-free loan with no repayment obligations from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. Gladys borrowed the money for a good cause. She gave the money to her mother. It represents to her a “God-sent” opportunity to win her financial independence. The investment is worth it. It finally gives Ammie the realisation of her dream to run a small business from the dilapidated hut she owns by the side of their house. It has been wonderfully refurbished into a delicatessen, a delightful story. Today, I see it has been transformed into a convenience store in their barangay from which she can sell her delicious viands, and miscellaneous grain and rice for the villagers. The Coronavirus had threatened their community with food insecurity. This was another urgent reason to set up the convenience store. The good news keep coming. I learned that Ammie’s husband has successfully kicked his addiction to alcohol. Ammie never abandoned him, her steely determination to keep her family together despite the many reasons to walk away is further testament to her great capacity to love and give. Ammie, a real genie. An inspiration to those who would have given up long ago.

Ammie’s Deli
Ammie enjoying better days

My Boss, My Loss

I love Fridays. So much so I tell myself every day is a Friday. It avoids the blues of a Monday or the dread of mid-week with the weekend still seemingly an eternity away. I love Friday nights, especially. A Friday night is a movie night. There is no longer the need to go to a drive-in or drive to a Video Ezy store for a VHS tape – there just isn’t one anymore, the stores I mean. The VHS tapes I still have – some precious ones in my collection such as the digitally mastered THX Special Edition Star Wars Trilogy and Christopher Nupen’s Jacqueline Du Pre and the Elgar Cello Concerto. There is no need to do an illegal download either, The Pirate Bay and Napster have long disappeared. A long time ago we used to pester family members to buy us VCD’s of pirated movies from pasar malam or night markets in Penang or KL before they come and visit us in Adelaide. All that is history too which may require me to explain what a VCD was – Video CD, usually pirated and sold in Southeast Asia for just a dollar a copy. At that price, no one complained about the poor quality. Yet, I still have the voluminous Winter Sonata collection stashed away. Don’t ask me why, maybe it has something to do with Choi Ji-woo. Giving her up is hard to do. Nowadays we have free online streaming such as iView and SBS On-Demand. Netflix is also free, but only because First Son pays for it. Friday nights offer me the luxury to sit on my sofa chair like how a lord would, outstretched legs overhanging from the recliner chair, the gin and tonic a genuine tonic to lift me up from the pits another hectic and stressful week had banished me to.

My VHS collection, precious only because of the memories

Tonight’s movie is about a small group of immortal mercenaries in The Old Guard. They are led by the very feminine Charlize Theron whose puny arms, slender body and skinny legs are not those you’d expect of a lethal indefatigable fighter who has not lost a fight since time immemorial. Incredibly beautiful eyes, interesting storyline but just a very unconvincing immortal fighter. Where’s Chen Pei-Pei when we need her? Theron is unconvincing, she is no Wonder Woman. There were some fine resemblance of martial arts, but her puny arms just don’t look like they would hurt a fly. Her inability to convince me she can be a lethal weapon suddenly made me feel I am as unconvincing too. Not as a weapon but as the boss of my business and the boss of my family. I am no lord. I am no boss of the house either. Theron opened my eyes and forced me to look at my own deception. Look at the way I sit on my own throne. It is no throne. It’s actually a broken lopsided sofa chair with badly scuffed leather that is screaming for a badly needed coat of leather polish. Look at me. I am not even sitting fully spread on my chair. Why? Look at Murray, First Son’s pup. He has ownership of more than half the seat and therefore has consigned me to sit on the side of my backside with a twisted torso. Who is the boss? I am at a loss to tell you the truth.

Murray dislikes me sitting on his brown pillow.

Earlier today, I took him to the backyard, immediately after I finished work. His favourite game is football (we still call it soccer here) – I seldom get the ball past him for he is such an agile goalie. No, no. it is not that I am a novice at kicking a tennis ball. Murray is simply so much sharper and his reflexes faster than the best goalies we see on TV. Please move aside, Manuel Neuer, David De Gea and Buffon. You guys are old and slow by comparison. I hadn’t checked my mobile phone for over an hour. So, whilst Murray was taking a breather, I thought I could sit under the gazebo and read some of the WhatsApp messages that trickle in incessantly. Not a chance. He barked at me as I was checking my phone. Who is the boss, I asked? He insisted I put away the phone. No phones allowed on the football field, especially during penalty kicks. I suppose it is not such an unreasonable rule. As the boss, I quickly agreed to the request, lest it became a demand.

Once upon a time, I was the sole breadwinner for my family of seven. The Mrs very quickly produced us three sons. Her parents lived with us then, all seven of us under the one roof. I remember the innumerable late nights upstairs at my desk toiling away till the wee hours whilst the rest of the family enjoyed their slumber. Back then, I believed I was the boss of the family. And, as the boss, you will do whatever it takes to deliver a safe and secure environment for your family. The boss provides what the family needs. There were no “wants” to satisfy. It turned out to be a good thing. No soft drinks, no junk food and no useless toys that only damage the environment. The boss was like a parrot whenever their “wants” were submitted to him. “Ba, can you get us this?”Baby Son wondered as he pointed to the photo of a packet of Smith’s Chips on special in the weekly Coles catalogue. “GET?” I hollered. “You mean buy, right?” “Buying requires money, Baby Son.” Usually they took turns to deprive themselves, though. Once, Baby Son was looking at the temptations in the ice-cream section. It wasn’t I who screamed but Middle Son did. “PUT IT DOWN! We can’t afford ice-cream!” Or, when Middle Son was about to choose some bananas. Baby Son yelled to him from the opposite end of the F&V section. “HERE! THESE ONES ARE ON SPECIAL!” So, who was the boss? I thought I was. Now, I realise a father’s job in the family was precisely that. A job. To provide and to protect. Did it make me the boss? I am at a loss to answer that.

A fortnight ago, my mum thoroughly enjoyed her first durian for the year. I bought two Musang King durian from Thuan Phuat in Chinatown. They were $27.50/kg. Ma uncharacteristically exclaimed they were reasonably priced. The sweetness of her smiles were enough for me to venture out to buy some more today. When I saw the price tag, the Penang-lang in me yelped “Oh, you have put the price up to $28.50! That was quick!” Penang-lang means a person who hails from Penang. Here, it also means a person who is price-sensitive (to put it kindly) or someone who is extremely miserly (to put it insensitively). Perhaps, it is safer to describe a Penang-lang as someone who is thrifty, one who is forever conscious of prices and therefore is never wasteful. The lady boss of Thuan Phuat smiled sweetly and said she will charge me only $27/kg. Wow. That is how a true boss behaves – generous, equable and congenial. Whereas I am the type who feigns displeasure at a shop-keeper’s price increase. Do I act like a boss? I am at a loss to answer that. Ma again was visibly happy as she helped herself to a second “hood” of durian. The Penang-lang in me counted she had three in total today. She looked so pleased, so I ate less and packed a container for her to take home. She kept saying that’s it, two durian sessions a year will do. I reckon I want to surprise her with a few more.

Out of three “hoods”, this was the best!

Murray also had his before me. I was responsible for opening and serving all three durians. I suppose that makes it clear who the boss is. I know it cannot be me. Let’s ask Murray.

Murray can have the durian but not the seed. It contains cyanide!