Bob in Starbucks 

I’d like a soy chai latte, please.

Grande? Venti?

A shake of my ignorant head.

The young man explains.

Grande please.

Marker pen raised above paper cup: What’s your name, sir?

Howard.

Pardon me?

HOWARD.

 

Next time, a different Starbucks: what’s your name sir?

Howard.

Pardon me?

Bob.

Sure, Bob. Won’t be long.

 

Bob loiters and in truth it is not long before he is drinking the curiously tolerable blend of sugar, sugar, sugar, spices and soy.

 

My name has always been plastic.

I keep at home a newspaper cutting from ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’ of early January 1946, announcing the birth of Yvonne and Myer Goldenberg’s second child: ‘Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are delighted to welcome their second child, Adrian. Brother to Dennis.’

Friends flocked to the Leeton District Hospital to congratulate Myer and Yvonne and to commiserate with Adrian. Horrible name, they said to my parents. Do you really hate him that much?

Ben and Ethel visited, bringing their four-year old boy, Howard. Mum looked at Dad, Dad looked at Mum and Adrian became Howard.

 

I got used to Howard. The softness in Mum’s voice as she spoke the name, the pride in Dad’s, convinced me Howard was good. I used it for a long time.

 

I came to Melbourne, became an adult and learned to drink coffee. I patronised Universita Café where a short, round young waitress named Theresa asked me my name.

Howard.

Pardon?

Howard.

OK John, I’ll bring your cappuccino to your table.

She did, John drank and the coffee was excellent.

John patronised the Universita for twenty years.

One day I bumped into a man there whom I knew. (I had his baby son’s foreskin at home, but that is another story.)

Hello Zev.

Hello Howard.

We sat down.

Theresa brought our coffees. Handing me my cappuccino, she said, There you are John.

Zev said, Who’s John? This is Howard.

Theresa looked confused. Mortified actually.

I never had the heart to return to the Universita.

 

I reverted to Howard for a further score of years. And remained Howard. Until I broached the threshold of Starbucks.

 

Unnatural Medicine

The young woman who sat before me said she was overwhelmed. Earlier that day she had visited a woman doctor for her Pap test and to discuss contraception. The young woman (whom I have known since the evening of her birth) sat and listened to the cascade of information and advice that flowed over her. She felt she was drowning; ‘My head swam. I thought I might faint or vomit. It was too much for me.’

 

The young woman is no dimwit. A graduate in Neuroscience and Philosophy she handles ideas that make my head swim. Her doctor is a thorough and thoroughly modern practitioner. She explained the actions of oestrogens and progestogens. She detailed the various routes of administration. She canvassed the respective durations of action of the different preparations.

 

Let us give the young woman a name. She can be Lucy.

 

Lucy explained why it was now critically important that she not conceive. For pressing medical reasons pregnancy could be disastrous. Her past use of barrier contraception would no longer do. Hormonal means were required. I asked, ‘Lucy, what is it you don’t understand about the Pill or the progesterone IUD or the progesterone implant?’

‘I understand them alright’, she said, ‘I just don’t want them. None of them. They’re all unnatural.’

 

I asked Lucy to elaborate. ‘Those hormones, they all do things to you. They affect your organs. I don’t want that. I’ve never liked that.’

 

Lucy is quite correct. They all do things to you. Whether it’s a device impregnated with progesterone that is inserted into the uterus – with or without a general anaesthetic (another unnatural chemical) – or a tablet that contains both oestrogen and progesterone, or a small progesterone-impregnated rod sewn under the skin of the upper arm, all will prevent pregnancy by violating Lucy’s natural biology. It was these assaults that alarmed Lucy. She felt she’d be a traitor to her own health if she embraced any of those measures. Her audience with the doctor struck at her ideology, her beliefs.

 

I sat and listened. I know how Lucy feels. Like most of my patients I am drawn to the natural remedy. Whether it is a hot lemon drink for a sore throat or a hot salty water soak for an infected finger, I have always prescribed these for my children, knowing I have no skerrick of scientific data attesting to their value. They just feel good. And right. And natural. My children have long mocked me for my atavism. And nowadays I see them treating their own children with the same nostrums.

 

Science has no truck with ideology. Science is an unsympathetic bastard. And profoundly unsentimental. The science of pharmacology defines a drug as any substance that alters a biological system. In other words, in our retreat from such unnatural substances as drugs, we resort to our hot lemon drinks and our hot salty soaks. And we feel better. But pharmacology’s corollary declares: any chemical which alters a biological system is a drug. If my inflamed finger feels better, if my sore throat improves, the salt or the lemon is a drug. Or a placebo.

 

I love placebos. Over the many years they’ve relieved lots of my symptoms. But, as I explained to a forlorn Lucy, placebos don’t prevent pregnancy. Against an incoming tide of one hundred and fifty million sperm cells, the placebo cannot prevent penetration of her waiting egg.

 

I tried to comfort Lucy. ‘There can be no natural contraception. Nature wants your every egg to be fertilised. Only the highly unnatural (but physiologically innocent) condom or the highly unnatural act of withdrawal or the offensive intrusion of hormones will prevent conception. Those or celibacy.’

 

Lucy took this in. She had no enthusiasm for celibacy. I added my opinion that withdrawal and cyclic celibacy were the two parents of most of the babies ever born.

 

Lucy left me, taking with her a prescription for the Pill. She will violate her biology that would otherwise have seen her conceive at fifteen and again – following two years of lactation – at eighteen, and again and again every three years or so until menopause and subsequent senescence and early death.

 

Of course everything I do in my work is unnatural. I intervene when hypertension or diabetes or elevated cholesterol would otherwise hasten the onset of heart disease. I order x-rays which expose the body to cancer-causing radiation. My surgical colleagues introduce stents. My psychiatrist friends alter brain chemistry with their medications, as they struggle to control the demons in our minds of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sometimes they save lives. Most unnatural. All of it, most unnatural.

 

There are two Laws I have learned.

 

FIRST LAW: There is no such thing as natural medicine.

 

SECOND LAW: There are no cures. Medical science always fails. We all die.

 

After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly. 
 

Melbourne’s Daughter

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter

(Dylan Thomas)
The newspaper article was short, buried at the bottom of an inner page: Man Sought in Child Death was the headline. Ambulance officers were called to attend an infant who was not breathing. They found injuries described as Non Accidental. They detected a feathery heartbeat and commenced resuscitation and brought the baby to hospital.
Following further treatment the baby underwent scans of the brain. These demonstrated Injury Incompatible with Life. Police wished to interview a man in connection with the matter. 
Nearly forty years ago I became intimately familiar with that hospital. At the age of fifteen months our youngest child was treated there for Aplastic Anaemia. I had learned enough of this invariably fatal disease at medical school to dread it. Over three miraculous days and three intense nights nurses and doctors worked on our infant as if she were their own. Three days following her admission our baby was home again, her condition in spontaneous remission. It never recurred.
I witnessed at that time what a friend describes as the operation of ‘an edge’. He says a hospital like that is a line where the worst and the best meet and rub up against each other. The worst, he suggests, is the suffering or death or loss of a child; the best is the application of skill and care and discipline in opposing the worst. The line where the best strains against the worst is a hospital like this one. My friend describes this as ‘OUR best’. By extension the loss or suffering of the child is OUR worst. I mean we are all implicated.

 
What must we learn from those pregnant expressions: ‘Non Accidental Injury’ and ‘Injury Incompatible with Life’? Horribly intrigued I sought more news in the next day’s paper. I found nothing. For the first time in my life I went to the news on-line. I googled ‘non-accidental injury to baby’. Straight away I was sorry I had done so. Case after case, headline after headline, BABY AFTER BABY, the web told of the slaughter of our very young in Australia. RecoiIing, I quickly ungoogled. A phrase from the biblical book of Numbers came to me – ‘a land that devours its children.’
Another friend is a senior doctor at that same hospital. He is the person with whom the buck stops, it is he who has to confront the adults in whose watch a non-accidental injury has taken place. Too often the x-rays show the many non-accidental fractures that have healed or half-healed or never healed in a baby’s short tenure. He sees the scans that show the brain bruised and bleeding from multiple sites. Calmly, civilly, he must direct questions to the adults. He says, ‘Your baby has been injured in ways that cannot occur by accident. Can you explain the injury to me?’ The adult partnership fissures along one of many fault lines, the truth emerges. And the truth is braided of many rotten strands. The perpetrator – sometimes more than one perpetrator – is almost never the simple monster we like to imagine. The perpetrator too often had himself been monstered – his life fractured, his brain contused by one evil or by another or by many.
I read, over the days that followed, a scattering of further details, most of them horrible beyond my imagining. And finally, this: the injuries being incompatible with life, the parent of the child had agreed the doctors should turn off the machines. But before that, she donated the baby’s organs. Injuries incompatible abruptly became compatible with saving half a dozen young lives.

 
I described babies who are killed as OUR babies. I felt, as I read Helen Garner’s, ‘This House of Grief’ that the three murdered boys were in a real sense Garner’s children, they were mine, they were all our children. And in my moments of google horror I felt the same shock of personal responsibility.

In the small South Australian town of Penola people built and tend a park to remember their babies lost.

Blue Label

My brother Dennis presented me with a blue carton containing a bottle of whiskey. I had never heard of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Whiskey did not interest me. All I knew was I couldn’t afford good whiskey, I didn’t like cheap whiskey and I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and uncheap. 

Dennis died ten years ago but the box and the bottle survive, unopened. Dennis died poor and intestate after forty-five years working in Finance. Dennis didn’t drink whiskey either. Strong drink was not his weakness. His loves were his weaknesses. One of his loves was for this brother, the one who survives him, healthy and unpoor.

 

I picture my firstborn brother in an airport palace of luxury items for sale duty free. He looks around for something good, something precious to buy for his loved brother. His instinct draws him to the most expensive items. A man of the world, Dennis recognises the blue label. He takes the box in one arm, reaches for his credit card, approaches the cashier. He makes the purchase he cannot afford, with funds he does not yet own, for the brother who will see no occasion to drink it.

 

To paraphrase O Henry’s closing remarks in ‘The Gift of the Magi’:

 

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of an unwise child who most unwisely sacrificed for the brother other the greatest treasures of his house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
 

Report of the World Preview of ‘A Threefold Cord’ 

 
they came from barwon heads

they came from the usa

they came from king david school

they came from haredi schools

they came in their numbers

they came with their foreskins and without
they numbered ten – plus adults
they fell instantly and hard in love with tali lavi, my interlocutor

she told them the book was exciting

and rude

and scary

and funny

and sad

and wonderful
i said the same – especially wonderful
i read, tali and i spoke and discussed, kids made comments
and i collected phone numbers and email addresses to advise attendors – there is no such thing as attendees (in this context) – of publication details
it was a triumph

NOW I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF SHARING THE TRIUMPH WITH YOU, DEAR READER OF THIS SOMETIMES SLUMBERING BLOG:
I’d be grateful if you would open the link below and watch and listen to the video in which the author reads from the first five chapters of this quite outstanding work.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5WiuKpPeWv9RHlTQlRTeWdjTEk/view

IN RETURN I HAVE A FAVOUR TO ASK OF YOU: After enjoying the viewing of my video would you very kindly respond to two questions:

1. Please indicate whether you would buy a copy of the E-Book of ‘ A Threefold Cord’ at $5.00
2. Please indicate whether you would buy a copy of the print book at $15.00
3. (Yes, this is the third of two questions): Would you purchase additional copies as gifts?

Invitation to a Preview of my Next Book 

I INVITE THE ENTIRE WORLD TO 
THE WORLD PREMIERE
OF 
 A THREEFOLD CORD 
THE LONG-AWAITED NOVEL BY HOWARD GOLDENBERG FOR CHILDREN OF 8-12 YEARS

AND THEIR PARENTS 

AND THEIR GRANDPARENTS 

AND THEIR CHILDREN

AND ANYONE WHO HAS EVER BEEN 8-12 YEARS OLD 

AND ANYONE WHO HAS LOVED A PERSON 8-12 YEARS OLD

AND ANYONE WHO LOVES A TERRIFYING, EXCITING, HILARIOUS, RUDE, OR INSPIRING STORY
COME TO LIMMUD OZ AT 5.30PM AT MONASH CAULFIELD, TOMORROW, 27 JUNE, 2017
CHILDREN WHO ACCOMPANY A PAYING ADULT ARE ADMITTED FREE OF CHARGE

while the adult is ripped off to the tune of 30-40 bucks  
http://sched.co/77uX
Limmud Oz Melbourne #books #literaryevent #authorreading