Reminiscing at 52

The water heater tank in my bathroom began leaking a week ago.

Hidden in the crawlspace in the ceiling boards, is a 68-litre Elton tank made by South Engineers Sdn Bhd.

I wrote to the manufacturers through their 1990s’ standard enquiry form on their website.

To my surprise, a guy named Steven from the company showed up at my front door a few days later.

He said it was the ‘element’. He could change it for RM300.

He said the warranty was only for three months but assured me it would last longer, maybe, if we are lucky, two to four years.

“Tak tentu punya ni”. Rough translation: “Life is uncertain and has no guarantees.”

The alternative – to terminate the tank and remove it through the ceiling – which was equally cost-prohibitive.

Steven said the tank was still good and I should maintain it. I gave him the go-ahead to change the rusted, faulty part.

The hot shower is back to status quo and the leak has stopped, for now.

I tell you this story because I turned 52 today.

Some parts inside of me, my memory, my joints, my elements, show signs of age.

Through all appearances, this “tank” is still good and just needs “maintenance.”

But inside, I feel my life drip, drip, dripping away. Where did the time go?

It is 1970, I am six and half years old. I am in Capital Kindergarten in Gurney Road. I was good at math, and was singled out by the teacher and given a higher math book to do my own sums.

My best friend is Azizi. During recess, we were served those tiny biscuits with multi-coloured sugary tops, chocolate wafers and hot Milo in pink plastic cups. We played catching and Police and Thieves among the trees in the park in front. There was the class bully, a tall matsalleh celup kid and the class cry-baby, a chubby Chinese girl who was immortalized in the official class photo – framed in tears.

I lived in a government-built, colonial-styled house off Jalan U Thant (Freeman Road), Off Jalan Tun Razak (previously Pekeliling or Circular Road).

The drains around our neighborhoods were so pristine they could sustain tadpoles and guppies! Our regular cycling range would take us to Hock Choon Mini Market on Jalan Ampang, the Selangor Golf Club, where would sneak in and lie on the smooth greens, before being chased away by the caddies, and, one day, without my parents knowing, the Ampang Reservoir, where we would skip stones on the water and catch fish.

On school holidays, all my cousins would come over and stay and we made up our own ‘Olympics’. My mum would make her fruitcake, tarts and chocolate cake for Christmas and my dad’s relatives friends and their families would come over for endless piles of food and lots of imbibing.

Life had so many possibilities.

It is 1977, I am 13.

My father has retired from the Survey Department and we had to move from the bungalow in Jalan U Thant, to a tiny double-storey terrace in Taman Desa Minang, off Jalan Batu Caves, via Gombak. Electricity was intermittent and I remember having to study by candle-light and pumping water upstairs from the pipe outside. The public Len Seng bus No 169 from Greenwood Park took a minimum an hour to get to school. All the comforts of living near school, in a house with a wide, expansive garden, full of wondrous creatures to discover, spiders among the leaves, squirrels in the branches and trees to climb and lots of space to go cycling, were gone.

I am in Form 1 in St John’s Institution. Brother Joseph Yeoh was our principal, a strict, cane-bearing fearsome man. But being the son of a teacher of the school, he had the school’s best interests at heart and it showed. Everyone’s favourite period was P.E. We played football after school, and often messed up our pristine white shirts. I was getting into Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Louis L’Amour and The Hardy Boys. The TV shows of that era were Happy Days (Fonzie!), CHiPs (Ponch!), the Professionals (Bodie and Doyle!), Starsky and Hutch (Huggie Bear!) and many, many more.

I watched a lot of TV, read a lot of books and dreamed of a life of great adventures.

It is 1990 and at 26, I am a working writer. I picked up photography when my boss thrust a Canon EOS in my hands. We used WordStar, a word-processing programme, to type in our stories at work. My work as a feature writer with a travel magazine earned me a writing award that year.

I was living with my then girlfriend in Sec 17, Petaling Jaya and sharing the house with four other ladies. Friends would often show up without warning for some spontaneous reverie. We had lots of house parties, and ate, drank, watched TV and movies, and laughed — a lot — together. On weekends, we played “rounders” at the padang nearby with a cricket bat and tennis balls. We had a dog named Patches. The restaurant nearby, Eastin, was our regular hangout. The pubs we frequented were Climaxx and On Line at Damansara Kim. We lived for weekends and parties, and it seemed nothing could faze us.

Life was good.

Fast forward 2016. I am 52.

I am married, live in my own apartment in SS2 with my wife, son who is 19 and my daughter, 17. I have been running my own business for a decade and a half. I no longer read fiction, only non-fiction but still enjoy an occasional good movie. I don’t cycle, or play any game or sport regularly. The hair has greyed, permanent wrinkles have set in and the paunch is noticeable.

I still maintain friendships from school, college, journalism and work days. We meet up occasionally and reminisce. The conversations usually dwell on our health issues, a death among our peers, the sinking currency, moribund state of the economy, our failed-state politics, the rising costs of everything, the trials of fatherhood, the cranky characters we knew, or just turns into a yak about the funny incidents in “the good old days.”

How time flies. Every doubling of the years has multiplied my experiences, added the memories, subtracted some of the pain. But the total sum of the equation never provided perfect answers. I couldn’t check for the solutions at the back of the book to see whether they were correct. I had to make up the answers when the problems came along. I know I made a lot of mistakes. I learnt from some of them. I continue to make others.

I was not good at life’s math and have few lessons to impart at 52. Except to say, “Tak tentu punya ni”. Life is uncertain and has no guarantees.

I turn to Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” for answers.
Here’s a quote from the book that sums it up for me:

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

I can only think to add one more.

17. Smile for the class photo.

May you all have a great birthday this year. And remember to smile for the photos.

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