Conversation with Clare

Every Wednesday 774 ABC Melbourne’s Clare Bowdich puts a question to the world of listeners to her radio program. She asks: ‘How can a person improve this world?’

The question has exercised the minds of good people since we first emerged from our caves.

I gave Clare the best answer I could: ‘Become a starfish flinger.’

You can hear the conversation here (about an hour into the link): http://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/afternoons/afternoons/8880310

Or here:

https://wetransfer.com/downloads/e0957563203072fda91a305971ca6d6120170914013429/5789f7a6216473dd097cc05c2acabc1220170914013429/9a192a

Magnified and Sanctified

It’s been ten years, Den, and only now do I feel I can say goodbye to you.

You were sixty three, I was sixty one. You died on Friday night. Your son brought the news to us at our shabbat table.

We buried you on the Sunday. We laid you to rest at an odd corner of the Jewish burial ground, beneath a young gum tree. I looked at the tree at that time and I remembered Dad’s fear of falling gums. I thought, here you are again, going against Dad’s prudent judgement. And I smiled.

You lie now, beyond the judgement of humans. Many were the people who judged you, fewer were those who tried to walk a mile in your shoes. They were big shoes.  Like everything about you, very big. Magnified, sanctified… People who did understand loved you extravagantly, in proportion to your extravagant life.

And now I can let you go. From the time of our final conversation I dreamed of you. The dreams were dreams of helplessness. You could not help yourself, I needed to help, I tried to help, but in those dreams, I could not. You called me that last time. The phone woke me from a dreamless sleep. Your speech rustled and crackled, the sweetness of your voice ruined by seven days with the breathing tube. You had rallied, they’d removed the tube; now, with your breathing failing, they needed to replace it. Your voice crackled: ‘Doff, they want to put the tube back. What should I say?’

I heard your breathing, a rasping, gasping sound. ‘Do as they say Den.’

‘Is it my best chance?’

‘Den, it’s your only chance.’

They returned you to your coma and they replaced the tube. Three days later you breathed your last.

At the cemetery we said, magnified and sanctified be the holy name.

One evening during the week of shiva my son led the prayers in honour of his uncle. He loved you Den. We loved you.

For ten years I dreamed of you, restless dreams, frantic. I was unable to help. Then I started writing about you and the dreams stopped. Now I sleep without the dreams. Sleep in peace beneath your gum tree, Den.

Starfish Flingers

Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:

 

 

She was a fishmonger

And sure ’twas no wonder

For so were her mother

And father before

 

She wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow  

Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles

Alive, alive O…’

 

 

I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’

‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.

 

 

‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’

 

 

‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’

 

I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.

‘Are you locals?’

‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’

I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.

 

 

 

And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’

 

The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’

Johann Appleseed

He stands in the mall, an oddly striking figure. His right foot perches before the left, the heel resting on pavement, the sole raised at angle of forty-five degrees to the horizontal. The man looks as if captured in the act of tapping a foot to music. But the foot does not stray from its perch; and where is the music? Listen carefully and you hear a sighing, a musical sound in time with his breathing. Look closely: held between fine fingers that protrude from fingerless grey woollen gloves is a silver harmonica. The man is playing. Or is he merely respiring – breathing in, breathing out through the instrument?  My friend Rod is a local. He traverses the mall every day.  ‘I don’t think he’s playing music’, says Rod. ‘Or if he is, it’s one single note.’
 
 
The man’s appearance is unusual. His hat is of classic design, early American Puritan I guess. Johnny Appleseed's name that comes unaccountably to mind. That old apple-planting, godbothering American pioneer, an early conservationist, a beloved and mythic figure in his own lifetime and since. Doubtless it's the headgear: the high peak of the hat is a tall cone, the brim a wide downsloping verandah . The colours of the felt shift subtly from mouse-grey to a junior navy blue to a peacock green. The effect strikes me as quite beautiful. The man himself is slim and he stands a full head taller than I. The hair of his head and his beard is turning from jet to silver. He looks as if he might command a fleet or conduct an orchestra.
 
 
The man stands singularly alone. I mean not simply that he is unaccompanied, nor that he neither receives nor seems to need notice: I mean there is in his solitude a seeming self-sufficiency that contradicts his act of his busking. For surely he is busking, this man who stands and plays music in a public place. But if he is busking, where is a receptacle for coins or notes? No cup or box or instrument case on the pavement before him, no hat either. That rainbow remains on his head. I stand at a distance, observing, wondering. I approach and wait for a hiatus in the sounds that emerge from his instrument. There is no pause. Neither is there a meeting of eyes. I step a little closer, not close enough to offend, but too close to ignore. I stand in silence while the musician plays on in near silence. I have time sufficient to study the sounds he makes. I hear more than Rod’s single note, at least three. The sounds flow and merge like the hues of his hat. While I wait I admire the close-fitting leather vest that clings to his lean frame. At length, a pause. I ask, ‘Do you mind if I speak to you?’
The man looks down towards me, an expression without a smile. He speaks: ‘For what purpose?’
‘I am puzzled. I see you standing in this public place, you play your instrument as one might who is busking. Yet you provide no container for a passer-by to show appreciation…’
‘Yes. ‘
‘Would the offer of money offend?’
‘No.’
‘But you do not encourage it.’
‘Nor discourage. If a person wishes to show appreciation, a conversation must first take place. As is occurring at present.’
The man’s old-fashioned formality has seduced me into unconscious imitation.
‘Would you object to telling me your name?’
‘Possibly not. What is yours?’
“Howard.’
‘Good morning, Howard. My name is Johann.’

He pronounces it unexpectedly as Jo-Han.
‘Isn’t it really Yo-hahn.’
‘Yo-hahn, yes.
‘Dutch?’
‘Yes.’ A smile, good teeth, (a little yellowed) emerge from the shrubbery of his upper lip. It’s a nice smile. ‘My parents, from the Netherlands.’
‘Do you live in Alice, Johann?’
‘Yes. For five winters now.’
‘And before that?’
‘I wandered. I carried my swag from place to place, I slept where I chose, under the stars. I came to Alice Springs and it was good place and I stayed. I do not expect to find a better. I do not need a better.’  
‘Do you play here every day, Johann?’
‘It provides my breakfast. I meet here interesting people from many places. I enjoy conversation. As is occurring at present.’
 
 
Johann accepts some money gravely. And no, he has no objection to being photographed or filmed.

Death Visits

Death visited last week, snatching away a lady whom we’d expected would recover. She was 87 years of age, a little disorganised in her brain, not vigorous but not too ill. We admitted her to hospital in the morning for observation and nursing care. Her elder sister had dementia too. She visited in the afternoon, escorted by her carer, a slim Asian woman.
 
 
At 3.00pm our patient enjoyed her afternoon tea. At four she took a nap. While asleep she stopped breathing. Big sister called us. Her cardiogram showed a heart attack. Her end of life instructions read: NO CPR. NO RESUSCITATION. She died. I left the dead concealed behind curtains and approached the living. I leaned and spoke clearly: ‘Your sister has just died in her sleep.’ It was the carer who fell onto the shoulder of her client, crying. The elder sister comforted her: ‘Don’t be upset. You get used to that.’ The calm features of the Asian woman twisted in grief, her face suffused. What silent sorrow of her own had been roughly torn open?
 
 
 
Meanwhile death had been stalking another two of my patients for days. I could hear his tread closing on them, unhurried, inexorable. For the younger of the two, death – release from her cancer – could not come soon enough. She begged, 'Let me die. Help me to die.' We gave her all we had, our promises of kindness, the usual feeble half-answers. She lapsed into a dull quiet, defeated by our timorousness.
 
 
The elder patient was far from ready. She had lived through the Second War in Europe, had seen much. Late at night she grasped my hand, breathlessly contriving a voice that filtered feebly through her oxygen mask. She pulled me close: ‘What will happen to me?’
I looked at her aged face, searching her: ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
’Dying.’ She looked hard into my face.
‘You don’t need to feel afraid. When the time comes you will fall sleep. You will not suffer. You will sleep and you will not wake up. We won’t let you suffer.’
The old lady brought my hand to her chest and gripped it hard, pulling me closer. We breathed together in the darkness. No voice. Her smile said her thanks.
 
 
I went to my quarters and fell fast into sleep.  My phone rang. When the screen read ‘Unknown Caller’, I knew it would be the hospital calling. Surmise told me death had arrived for one or other of my friends. No, not yet. A third patient, more peremptory, had summonsed death by swallowing two weeks’ medications. With one hundred and forty tablets inside her she dictated to the nurse the disposition of her possessions: ‘Give my good overcoat to this one. Give the money that’s coming to me to that one.’ 
 
 
Sleep was slow to return. I lay and calculated the effects of twenty-eight strong blood pressure tablets, and an overdose of aspirin. I must have slept, for the ringing of my phone disturbed me. ‘Unknown Caller’ again. No, no-one had died. A child had a red throat.
 
 
Over the following hours of darkness ‘Unknown Caller’ rang six times. Asthma, wet lungs, fever. No death. At dawn the call hauled me from deep sleep: ‘Come now! Cardiac arrest!’ A large inert body, a small nurse pushing down hard, again and again and again. A flickering trace on the cardiac monitor, a chain of us thumping an unwilling heart, injections of adrenaline, a failed electric shock. No pulse at the wrist. I called a pause, the hopeful triangles on the monitor fell into a flat line. No breaths, no heartbeat. The husband of the inert figure stood, watching, his hand on his mouth. We tried again.
 
 
After a time I called a second halt. I listened for a heartbeat. I listened and watched for breathing. I shone a torch into pupils and found them wide with death. I walked across the room to the husband and said, ‘Your wife has died.’ A massive man, erect, he crumpled into silent weeping. His heaving trunk was enveloped instantly in the embrace of a woman I had not sighted. I spoke into the bereaved man’s free ear, ‘She didn’t suffer. She was unconscious from the instant she fell.’ The embracer’s arm groping blindly, grabbed me, held me hard in the grieving ruck.
 
 
At length I extricated myself. The small nurse from Uganda wiped his eyes. Another nurse said hoarsely, ‘I was at school with the husband.’
After certifying the death and writing my notes I left the hospital. Outside, the chill of an Alice Springs morning felt welcome on my skin. I wandered to a park and attended to my dawn prayers, delayed by a death.

Eighteen Percent

As I ate my Weet Bix this morning I read the following email sent by my sister in the United States.

Café charges men 18% 'gender tax' to highlight pay gap


This sign lays out of the policy at Handsome Her, a Melbourne, Australia café where men are invited to pay 18% more to reflect the gender pay gap.

A café in Melbourne, Australia, is giving its male customers a side of gender equity with their lattes. At Handsome Her, men are asked to pay an 18% premium to "reflect the gender pay gap." Men earn an average 17.7% more than women for full-time work in Australia, a government report found. The difference is roughly the same in the United States.

The café, which opened its doors for the first time Thursday, is hoping to shine a spotlight on the issue. "All we really wanted was to raise awareness and start conversations about the gender gap," Belle Ngien, the café's manager, told CNN. The voluntary donations are collected during one week every month and given to women's charities, Ngien said.

But it didn't take long for the Internet to go crazy over the scheme, with some calling Handsome Her's "gender tax" discriminatory. But Ngien is unfazed: "Men have their own spaces that we're not allowed in to, so why not have that space for women?"
No one has declined paying the extra 18%, she said. In fact, a few customers — men and women — have donated more. "Eighteen percent is actually not a lot. Our coffee is $4, and 18% of that is 72 cents," Ngien said.

Indeed, men have come from across town to support the cause, owner Alex O'Brien said in a Facebook post. "We've had men travel across town to visit us and pay 'the man tax' and throw some extra in the donation jar," O'Brien wrote, adding, "Guys, you're pretty neat."
In the end, Ngien said, no one is turned away based on whether they pay extra.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to change their minds," she said. "We're not in the business of changing people's minds. They are welcome to go elsewhere if they don't want to pay a voluntary donation."

So far, Handsome Her has collected a couple hundred dollars for Elizabeth Morgan House Aboriginal Women's Service. And it's definitely fueled a conversation.

No-one gets roused to passion while eating Weet Bix. I mused and meandered and then it came to me: none of  the internet responses refers to the beneficiary, an Aboriginal women’s service. No-one is less equal in this egalitarian land than a beaten Aboriginal woman.

I can affirm that: in my present posting I was asked to give evidence in the trial of the ex-partner who took to his girlfriend with baseball bat. He injured head, eye, limbs, trunk. Bones were broken. She was admitted unconscious to Intensive Care. A huge purple discoloration on the woman’s back, the size and shape of a bat, said clearly what she could not.

I forwarded the above to friends and family. A friend, Colin Hockley, wrote in response:

Once upon a time in a far away country lived a little boy. He had a big sister. 

The little boy's jobs were to feed the chooks and collect eggs, mow the lawns, work in the huge garden, chop the kindling wood, fetch coal, light the fire, walk the dog, get up in the cold, pre dawn and deliver newspapers before school, and deliver meat for a butcher on Saturday mornings. He worked on a farm through school holidays planting or picking potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, raspberries, and was the chief shouter in a gang of rat catchers.  

At home his role was to peel the potatoes every day, lay the table for meals, wash dishes, and in summer, select salads from the garden. His best job was to roam across soggy fields early in the mornings, before even the farmer was up and about and find huge mushrooms laying amongst the cow poo.

The big sister cleaned house and the little boy helped with that. She also ironed, washed dishes and was very busy with homework from school. Big sisters got more pocket money because they "have to look after their hair". They don't do paper rounds in the dark, or butcher rounds, or work on a farm. This is for the boys. 

When the little boy grew up he sometimes found himself looking into an ugly pit of resentment at these differences and the bubble of pain that went with it, threatening to burst one day. Later he began to see that everyone carries weeping wounds or scar tissue and that he could transcend pain by looking at someone with greater pain. 

Like the story of the poor woman bashed with a baseball bat. 

A special tax of 18% on baseball bats should be imposed to pay for this atrocity.  
 
 

Hanky no Panky

A woman of my acquaintance declared herself ready to acquire a boyfriend. Having emerged from an emotional crash site, having brushed herself down, cheered herself up, adopted mindfulness and become a yogi, the woman confided, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a boyfriend.’ She meant me to understand ‘boy’ as a person in her own, non-juvenile age bracket. She comes, as she often reminds me, to a different – younger – generation.
 

 
The woman selected a promising candidate – fellow yogi, terrifically mindful, neither bankrupt nor lumbered with children, not a Trump supporter nor addicted. After the first date she favoured me with a report: ‘Charming fellow, good company.’ Yes, she’d see him again.
 
 
Following the second encounter I found her beaming. ‘He’s funny!  And considerate. I like him.’
 
 
The woman saw him on a third occasion. Following this
I heard no report. In due course the woman and I bumped into each other. ‘Well?’ I asked.
 
‘Well what?’
 
‘How are things with Mister Right?’
 
‘What are you talking about?’ A bit frosty. Irritated.
 
‘You know, Mister Funny, Mister Considerate, Mister…’
 
‘Him!  We’re not seeing each other. I’m over him.’
(That’s how she talks. That’s how Generation Alphabet talks.)
 
 
Nonplussed, I asked, was the matter settled, final? It was, utterly. Finally. Beyond redemption.
 
 
‘What happened?’
 
‘Nothing happened. He’s repulsive.’
 
‘Why?‘ I asked: ‘Bad breath?’
 
‘No. Something he did.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘Blew his nose.’
 
‘What’s do you prefer? Nosepicking?’
 
‘It’s not just that. He uses a hankerchief.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘He reached into his pocket, pulled out this square of folded fabric, buried his nose in it and blew.’
 
‘That’s all?’
 
‘No. After he finished, he folded up that precious bit of rag – some heirloom from his grandfather – and put it into his pocket!’
 
‘What’s the problem. His technique seems sound. Copy book, in fact. What would you suggest?’
 
 ‘A tissue.’ 'Since when did snot become so important that you need to carry a piece of material around just in case you need to blow your nose? Do you carry toilet paper in your pocket just in case you need to shit? And if you did, would you use it and then put it back in your pocket?'
 
 
This woman is not a doctor. She does not interest herself in the absorbing topic of how macrophages make their way to pathogens, how they engulf, destroy and wash them away. For her, it is not immune competence that matters, but style. Aesthetics. As a result the woman has no time for snot. I offered to enlighten her about the secret life of the albumen-born macrophage. ‘It’s not glamorous, but it is marvelous,’ I begin. She turned her face to me, sneering. From a person of her non-judging, all-accepting, mindful, universe-loving, recently renovated nature, that expression was alarming. And enlightening.
 
 
I persisted: ‘You know, we all make mucus. The membranes that line our hollow organs are named after it. That’s why they’re called ‘‘mucous membranes.’’ Their cells secrete a smoothing film of pearly fluid to keep things moving. Your nose does it, your sinuses, your eustachian tubes, your lungs, your bowel. And if you’ll forgive the expression, so too does your vagina. Snot makes the world go round.’
 
‘Not my world.’
 
“You’d be shot without snot.’
 
 ‘If you say so. I say, if you’ve got it, blow it and stow it, don’t store it.’
 
‘So, blowing your nose on a tissue is more elegant? Every tissue user knows the moist warm feeling of snot overflow drowning the tissue. Is that glamorous enough for you? Hygienic enough?’
 
‘Look, don’t give me your science. I just don’t want to be close to a man who keeps a clothful of old germs, and cold slime and green crusts in his pocket.’
 
The voice had climbed a few octaves and grown emphatic. Sober discourse and factual analysis were not what my friend was after. Aesthetics were the thing. And, as in all matters of taste, consistency is not the prize. It’s the vibe. I did not invite my friend to consider the content of the nation’s gussets, where innocent slime thickens and dries, its macrophages dying content with a job well done.
 
 
Troubled by thoughts of the man’s unfair dismissal, I appealed to proportionality, an element of justice; ‘So you deprive a person – a good person by your own description – of the sunshine of your company simply for possession of flannel and mucus?’
 
‘Certainly. I could respect him, but inwardly I’d shudder. I could never be intimate with someone like that.’

'It's also a symbol of his mindset. Who of my generation carries a hanky? Deep down he is obviously conservative, boring and predictable. The hanky says a lot about him as a person. If lunch hadn't been spicy I may not have found out about the hanky until it was too late.'
 
‘What if he treated you with tenderness and respect?’
 
‘Tenderness and respect? That’s exactly how he treats his snot. Reaches into his pocket, pulls out his damask, which he’s folded and refolded into a fussy little square, unfolds it, takes a big breath and blows. You look away, trying not to vomit. You hear the flow. He sneaks a little sideways peek at his ejaculate, tries to hide his satisfaction, folds up the hanky and pops it into his pocket.’
 
‘So?’
 
‘So, if he carries a hanky – no hanky panky!’