Being There

When my eldest grandchild asked me recently to name my favourite movie I nominated ‘Being There’, starring Peter Sellers. The movie consists of one slow, quiet joke. And it is profound.
 

 

I recommend the following extract from Wikipedia. Or google the you-tube.

 

“Being There is a 1979 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby. Sellers was nominated for Best Actor.[3] The screenplay won the British Academy Film Award for Best Screenplay and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

 

 

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged man who lives in the townhouse of an old, wealthy man in Washington, D.C. He is simple-minded and has lived there his whole life, tending the garden. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance naively says he has no claim against the estate, and is ordered to move out. Thus he discovers the outside world for the first time.”

 

 

 

 

 

(Remind you of someone? I thought of George W Bush.)

 

 

“Chance wanders aimlessly. He passes by a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an elderly business mogul. In the car is Rand’s much younger wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine).

 

 

Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. She mishears “Chance, the gardener” as “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and ’30s, which his benefactor had allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly. When Ben Rand meets him, he takes “Chauncey” for an upper-class, highly educated businessman. Chance often misunderstands people and states the obvious, particularly about gardening, but his simple words are repeatedly misunderstood as profound, allegorical statements about life, business and the economy. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful.

 

 

Rand is also a confidant and adviser to the President of the United States (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to “Chauncey.” The President, who is concerned about the economy, asks Chance his opinion about “temporary incentives.” Chance hears the words “stimulate growth” and following a pause goes on a short speech about the changing seasons of the garden. Chance goes on to say “there will be growth in the spring.” The President completely misinterprets this as optimistic political and economic advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. He remains an adviser to Rand, attends important dinners, meets with the Soviet ambassador and appears on a television talk show. During the show, Chance again goes into detail about the importance of gardening and what a serious gardener he is, the host and public misunderstand this to be Chance talking about running the country and being a serious President should he get the chance.

 

 

Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his “simple brand of wisdom” resonates with the jaded American public. The President even begins to fear Chance’s popularity with the public.

 

 

Chance is present at Rand’s death and shows genuine sadness at his passing by crying. At Rand’s funeral, while the President delivers a speech, the pall-bearers hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. They unanimously agree on ‘Chauncey Gardiner.”’

 

 

(Remind you of someone? A figure from nightmare? Some figure – not a person – an idea, a phantasm, a nightmare figment? Never, never ever, not ever in real life could the American people choose a cretin for leader? Never a person of such surpassing shallowness and vapidity and pervading ignorance that he would make George W appear a sage by comparison? Would not the great American people choose a patriot, a person who loved her country, a person who paid her taxes? Wake me, someone, wake me please – say, in four years’ time.)

Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

Dressing up to Undress

Patients who attend a doctor in emergency come dressed in their ordinary rags and tatters. Their outer clothes vary and their undies are sundry. Those who attend, foreknowing, for their piles or their pap, wear their best undies. We all do it; we prefer to dress up to undress.
 

That’s why I’m hurrying out to purchase a toothbrush. When my regular dentist enquires I assure him I my teeth regularly – and I do – every birthday as well as at Passover and Yom Kippur. Regularly. Never fail. (I suspect my dentist’s true question goes not to regularity but to frequency. But I answered truthfully.)

 

So I do already own a tooth brush. It has served me, three times a year, for twenty years. It’s an old comrade, faithful and ragged. Today, however, I’m investing in a toothbrush of twenty-first century manufacture. I’m going to brush my teeth today. I’ve googled ‘how to brush your teeth’ and I’ll imitate the you-tube that shows how it’s done.

 

I’m preparing to visit a special dental practitioner, a periodontist. I’ve never seen a periodontist before but I am reliably advised that this professional will be a torturer with higher degrees and advanced training. So I will come prepared – with a brand-new overdraft facility from the bank and my gums sparkling after the attention of the new toothbrush.

 

Why has my faithful old dentist sent me to his colleague? Apparently my long gums are going to get longer, my wobbling teeth will all fall out, my destined dentures will never chew adequately and a gummy grin will decorate my mouth in senescence. In short my days of mastication, like life on this planet, are numbered. There’s just time to enrich a professional before it all comes to pass.

 
 

Like everyone else I’m dressing up for my own funeral.

 

 
 

Teaching an Old Dog Old Tricks

 

“Good morning, Doctor.’ The good-looking man is new to my practice. He offers a hand, shakes manfully, breaks no bones but leaves none unfirmed. His smile launches a promising relationship. ‘I’m new to Melbourne, doctor. Just moved here – for my studies.’

 

The man looks a young forty. I check his date of birth; he’s forty-nine.

‘What are you studying?’ – I ask.

‘Philosophy. Classic Philosophy, the greats, you know, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides…’

He’s won me.

 

‘I used to be a lawyer. Made some money, made a family, four kids. Now it’s time for me. Time to pursue wisdom.’

‘Share it with me when you find it,’ I say.

He smiles.

 

‘Doctor, I wonder if you can help me out. Awkward situation. I’ve left my tablets in Sydney. They’ll arrive Monday next with the family. My doctor prescribed a short course of Temazepam for sleep. Exams next week and I can’t sleep. If I don’t sleep, I’ll fail. If I fail I’ll never find wisdom.’ The winning smile again.

 

 ‘What are the tablets?’

‘Temazepam, the weaker ones, the tens. I’m scared of anything stronger.’

‘Very wise. They’re habit-forming.’

The man looks shocked: ‘Habit-forming? Really? My doctor never mentioned that. I just want enough to get me through these exams. I finish in three weeks.’

 

 

The man and I spend a little time discussing Temazepam, natural remedies, his own preference for a long hard run (‘Wouldn’t you know, Doctor, my running shoes are still in Sydney?’) The man looks up at the marathon photos that cover my walls where other doctors show their degrees.

‘Are you still running, Doctor? Marathons? Really? Amazing!’

 

 

The man leaves my room with his limited prescription, leaving behind his protestations of delight, his vows he’ll be back, how lucky our paths crossed, he’s found a disciple of Maimonides, he wants me to be his new doctor.

 

 

A couple of patients later the receptionist buzzes me and pricks my balloon: ‘That new patient, do you know what he said about you, Howard?’

‘No.’

‘”What an amazing doctor! Still running marathons!” Says you are a scholar, an expert in Greek Physiology.’

 

‘You know what else he said?”

‘What?”

‘He said he left his wallet in his car. He said he’d be back in five minutes to pay. I asked him for his Medicare card, but that was in the car too. But he knew his number, he said, and I took it down. Thirty minutes and he’s not back. I rang Medicare: there’s no such number and they have no record of that name at the Sydney address he gave. I rang his mobile. “Optus advises the number you have called is incorrect or has been disconnected.”

 

 

Three years pass. Three years are not sufficient to heal a wound in trust.

Last week a new patient registers with Reception. He presents his Medicare Card, asking a series of questions:

‘What doctors are consulting today?

‘Who will I be seeing?’

‘How long has he been at this practice?’

‘I just need a prescription. I’ve lost my tablets and my wallet too. Can I pay with my credit card?’

 

 

The relatively new receptionist was not with us three years ago. She calls me: ‘Are you with a patient, Howard?

‘No.’

‘May I come in and talk with you?’

‘Certainly.’

The young woman is shaking: ’I think your next patient is lying. I think he might be the man who came here a few years ago and lied to you to get tablets.’

 

 

A phone call to the Doctor Shopping Line at Medicare. I give the Medicare number of the new patient. ‘We suspect he’s a doctor shopper’, I say. I give the new patient’s stated name. The Medicare person confirms the validity of the card and the truth of the name given. ‘We have records of that patient’s recent prescriptions. He’s had eighteen prescriptions since March first, every one of them for twenty Temazepam tablets, each prescription from a different doctor in your area. You might like to inform the patient of these facts, Doctor.’

 

 

A Guest of the Emir

Recently I enjoyed the hospitality of the Emir of Dubai. Overnight Qantas flew me from Australia to the Emir’s desert airport where I boarded one of his aircraft, bound for Malta via Larnaca. At 0720 I found my seat in the very front row of Economy. As we were not due to take off until 0750 there was sufficient time for me to recite shacharith, (literally, the dawn prayer).

 

I looked around. I saw no other yarmulkes. On the other hand, there were no hijabs either, nor keffiyehs. I pulled out of my backpack all the elaborate paraphernalia of my morning prayer – tallith, tefilin, siddur and stood for a moment, irresolute. I recalled the prayers of my family on the eve of a previous Emirates flight: ‘Dad, you can’t do all those rituals on Emirates. It’s provocative. It’s not safe. Please, Dad, don’t do it!’

 

I unfolded my tallith. Not just any old prayer shawl, this was the final gift to me of my father. Very late in Dad’s life I took him to Gold’s where he bought this tallith for me and I bought one for him. An absurd exchange? Possibly so. It was one we had ritualised over a couple of decades: at the kosher grog shop, I’d shout Dad to arak or slivovitz for Passover and he’d buy me a brace of claret and Kiddush wine. Happy to enhance the other’s observances we’d grin and embrace and bless each other.

I looked at the tallith and felt the fall of many curious eyes. I thought of Dad and I wrapped it around my head and stood, enfolded, for a few moments of remembrance. Then I showed my face.

 

Standing in my seat in Economy I realised I was providing a live show for the roughly 160 gentile persons filing slowly past my seat at the front, en-route to their own. I had more colourful display in store for them. I pulled out the small bag of royal blue velvet that holds my tefilin. These small black leather boxes, fashioned after an ancient craft, contain Torah verses meticulously inscribed on vellum. Tefilin symbolise key rememberings that are mandatory every day upon every Jew. Attached to the little boxes are long black leather thongs by which I bind one box high on my left arm and another to the centre of my forehead. The verses thus are bound to my heart and my mind.

 

 

The unfolding of tefilin, the minute and precise steps of the placing and binding, punctuated at prescribed intervals by the reciting of rabbinic and prophetic words, constitute a dance no less exacting than the mating of brolgas. Three hundred and twenty eyes took in the old choreography. 

 

Upon completing my devotions I removed one leather box, kissed it perhaps a little more reverently than usual and coiled its straps. I did the same with the second. Finally I folded my tallith. The ceremony of prayer at an end, I took in my fellow passengers. We were Filipinas, Chinese, Occidentals, and a fair smattering of persons of Middle Eastern appearance. No-one had raised the alarm, no-one objected to my sectarian display.

 

 

When at last I sat down, the man next to me asked: ‘Where do you come from?’

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’

 

A large smile. Surprised, happy to be recognised, he nodded. He and his wife and his volleyballer-tall daughter were heading for Malta, as I was. ‘For our holidays’, he said. And what was it that drew me to Malta? The Conference of Arts and Sciences, certainly. And yes, the marathon. But before all that I was coming to listen for the voices and hear the stories of dead Jews.

 

The Night Away from my Wife

At breakfast yesterday morning I said to my wife: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight.’

My wife was reading the paper. She said, ‘Le Pen looks ominous.’

I said: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight. I’ll be sleeping out.’

‘That’s nice, darling.’

I said, ‘I’ll be sleeping with a stranger. For money.’

‘That’s nice darling.’

I kissed my wife goodbye. She said, ‘Have a good one.’

I went to work.

 

After work I went to the place that offers the services I desired. Discreet premises, modest, not flamboyant at all. I knocked on the door. The person who opened the door was a man. He asked my name. I said, ‘Howard.’

‘Goldenberg?’ – he smiled. A nice smile. ‘I’ll be looking after you first’, he said. ‘Then my colleague will take over. I’ll just measure you now – as a preliminary. So my colleague will have an idea of your…dimensions.’

The pleasant man measured me here and there and wrote in a file. ‘Come this way, ‘he said, you can take your clothes off and shower first. Then you can change into something, ah, a little less formal.’

He showed me down the corridor past a series of doorways to a small room in which I found a small table and a chair, a TV and a bed. The bed was larger than a single, cosy for two. Three, I reckoned, would be a crowd.

 

The pleasant man turned to go. ‘What about payment?’ – I asked. ‘I don’t deal with the money. You pay your particular worker for their services.’

I felt unhappy about this – not the matter of emolument but the grammar. ‘Their services’ sat poorly with me for one worker. Or – a late thought – would I be spending the night with more workers than one? This might be expensive.

 

I took a shower. It was not until the hot water was running over my grateful shoulders that I realised I’d brought no soap. I looked around and saw a liquid soap dispenser above the sink at the opposite side of the bathroom. I turned off the shower, emerged, dried myself, pumped a palmful of semen-coloured liquid, (which, upon sniffing, I found to be some innocent hydrocarbon derivative) and returned to the shower recess, where I employed a busy free hand to turn on the water, to adjust the temperature and to dip into the reservoir-palm for moieties of soap, which I then deployed to those portions of my body I judged strategic for the encounter ahead. 

I dried myself and wrapped my glowing body in something a little more comfortable. The time was seven fifty. The room was booked to me until seven the next morning. When I booked no-one actually told me when my worker/s would commence work. I sat on the bed and crossed my legs. I moved to the chair and sat. And waited. Nothing happened, no-one arrived at my door. I listened and I heard voices, other doors than mine opening, doors closing, then silence.

What to do? Perhaps I should read. I went to my daypack and found a book. Edited by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the book was my siddur, the book of Jewish Prayer. I opened the book and I prayed for strength and guidance. There came a knock at the door. Engaged in my devotions, I did not answer. Another knock. More silent prayer. Another knock, and a voice that said, ‘Knock, knock. Anyone there?’ That, I reflected, is precisely what the worshipper is asking at prayerful moments. The door opened behind me. A voice, a pleasant voice, said, ‘Good evening, I’m your…’ – then choked: ‘Oh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ I heard the door close behind me.

 

 After a time I finished, replaced my siddur in my pack and went in search of my visitor. I found the owner of the pleasant voice, a woman, younger than I, perhaps half my age. She looked Samoan. Her voice spoke a volley of apologies, my voice answered with assurances and then she said, ‘My name is Hortense. And you’re…’ she was studying my folder in which her male colleague had recorded my dimensions… ‘You’re Howard. Let’s go to your room Howard.’ I did as I was bid.

 

‘Would you like to sit on the bed, Howard?’ It didn’t seem like Hortense expected any verbal reply. I sat. She stood facing me, looking down at the top of my head. ‘How do you keep those on? Do you wear it everywhere? I mean, all the time? Like in bed?’ I explained. Then I had questions of my own: ’Hortense, will anyone else be joining us tonight?’ ‘No, just me, Howard. I think I’ll manage alright. I’ve done this before. You’re not nervous are you? You don’t need to feel nervous.’ I reassured Hortense I was not nervous. I too had done it before. 

 

‘First I’m going to tie you up,’ said Hortense, indicating the forest of leather straps and wires festooning a rail on the far wall. As Hortense leaned generously forward, ‘tying me up’, her crucifix dangled just above my nose, pendulating and tickling me as she moved. It was a not-unpleasant preliminary.

Hortense returned to her folder. ‘Oh, you’re a doctor!’ There was delight in her voice. She looked again at my yarmulke. ‘Well Doctor, I suppose you do circumcisions?’

‘I used to. Hundreds of them, not anymore.’

‘It’s so much better, isn’t it.’

‘Isn’t what?’

‘Much nicer. Don’t you think?’

I could not fashion a suitable response.

‘Well, look at me’, said my companion for the night, ‘I’ve been dating for a long time now, quite a number of partners. It does look much nicer, doesn’t it. Cleaner too, you know, once they’re done?’ I couldn’t really say, so I didn’t say anything. Hortense took my silence as affirmation.

 

I had a pleasant enough night with Hortense. She said, ‘I suggest you take a shower before you go home to your wife.’ I did so, paid my money, jumped onto my bike and rode home through the rain, accumulating grit and road grime as I rode. As her drowned rat of a husband came sweating through the door, my wife was breakfasting: ‘Le Pen did badly,’ she said.

 

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.