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.

 

A Backward Country 

There’s a problem here. Police officers wander around singly, unadorned by bullet-proof vestments, no gun at their hips. I took the ferry to Gozo. No-one searched my bag or my body. Same when I entered the bank, the same at The Grand Hotel Excelsior. The same at the Biblioteca National. 

People seem relaxed. A citizen trusts her neighbour. 

The place is full of foreigners but no-one seems to care. We are just across the water from Libya and no-one is afraid. Negligent governments have not sown mistrust. Is everyone here asleep?

A backward country, this. I met Malta’s number three cop. A gentle sort of fellow, he seemed about as menacing as a powder puff. Where were their blokes who swagger around the borders and within them, like the Border Protection Force that keeps all us Aussies feeling so safe?

I went to a barber shop. Hidden up a staircase above a (not very) supermarket, and around some corners, it was a narrow establishment, its proportions little bigger than our guest powder room in my home. I hesitated at the threshold. Something faintly seedy about the joint, hard to pin down. A scent of tobacco breath mingled with barbershop smells. There were two chairs, one occupied. A tangle of odd black electric cords hung from a power point, metal implements lay scattered as if some disturbance had been and passed.
 

A young man with olive skin and a spade-shaped black beard looked up from the head he was trimming and waved me in. He was lean and tall, his black hair falling in wild waves about his narrow head. I guessed the young man might be in his late twenties. He looked lithe and coiled – Caravaggio before a brawl.

A second young man seated in the depths of the room rose as I entered. He too was tall, but better fed, perhaps a few years younger. His head was crowned with tight black curls pulled back into a pony tail, his jaw covered in a curly black spade. I thought I caught a fugitive smile. He waved me to the second chair, stood over and close to me, and raised an eyebrow. It was a question. I answered with a question: Can you make me beautiful?

I no English much.  

I pointed to my own chin, scruffy with whitish undergrowth. Zero, I said.

He nodded enthusiastically.

I pointed to my scalp, an arid garden.

Two, please.

More nodding, a big smile.

I sat back and considered. Flowing beards are all the go here, but it’s the barbers not the barbered who wear them. I looked around for a cut-throat blade, sighted none, sat back again and relaxed. The two young men were engaged in jovial conversation with a third, the customer in the first chair. I wondered what the joke was. Perhaps it was me. I listened for words I might recognise. The local language Malti is Semitic. It sounds quite a bit like Arabic, from which it traces its origins, with plenty of words similar to Hebrew which I can speak tolerably fluently. As the men conversed I sensed this might be street Malti, pretty rough and ready, perhaps untroubled by grammar or syntax. I listened some more. Lots of words were familiar, too many: this was Arabic, not Malti.

In all the flow of camaraderie and good humour, my barber man concentrated hard on my hair. His movements were gentle and deft. In the mirror my scalp rose into view from its sheddings; a wide and empty plain surfaced where I was used to seeing hairs. Two was shorter than I expected. Given the intimacy between me and the barber man, I felt we should be on first name terms: 

What’s your name?

Asraf.

My name is Howard.

Hawa?

How-wad. 

How Wad.

I nodded and grinned. Good to meet you, Asraf. 

From where you come?

Australia.

Asraf digested this: Much far.

Yes. Where do you come from Asraf?

Tripoli.

Libya!

Yes.

Asraf grinned and resumed operations.

My artist spent a lot of time and close concentration on corners and in nooks where I seldom gaze. Nostrils were explored, earholes broached, ear perimeters subject to hair-by-hair extirpation. Finally he straightened, turned, laid down his electric instrument, and advanced bearing a cut-throat blade. I felt a tremor. My misgiving derived not for Ironbark but Sinai: the biblical prohibition echoed -Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. For some reason the naked blade is held to violate this Law while the electric trimmer is accepted – by some. I waved away Asraf’s trusty skibouk: Not this one. I like electric. After a further fifteen minutes of electric search and destroy Asraf was content there were no escapees.  
Asraf removed the tarp from my torso. I rose and together we surveyed my remains:

Shukran, I said.

How you know Arabic?

I produced my yarmulke and applied it to my naked scalp.

Asraf’s grin was huge. Reaching for his phone he leaned and wrapped his arm around me and took a photo of us both. A modest sum augmented by an immodest tip changed hands. We shook, I left and went to buy groceries next door. Exiting the grocer’s a few minutes later, I nearly bumped into Asraf and Carravaggio. They’d gone outside for a smoke. Whenever I see someone smoking I feel a pang, and I ask myself, Why? 

I waved as I passed by my friend from Tripoli and guessed the answer to Why? might lie in what he’d seen, what and whom he’d left behind. 

 

I Read the News Today, O Boy

I read this news report today. You probably missed it as mainstream news media don’t print this sort of news.
“Mourners are streaming to the central Israel city of Tira to comfort the family of a nineteen year old woman killed by ISIS. Lian Zaher Nassser was one of 39 people killed by an ISIS gunman at a New Years celebration at an Istanbul nightclub.
She was laid to rest at a funeral attended by thousands on Tuesday, just over a week after another Israeli woman, Dalia Elyakim, was buried. 

Nasser, an Israeli Arab, was on holiday in Istanbul with three friends, one of who(m) was injured. Elyakim, killed in the Christmas market attack in Berlin, had been travelling with her husband Rami, who was badly injured in the attack.

In the Nasser family’s sorrow, it found help from an unexpected source – ultra-orthodox Jews. The parents wanted to get their daughter’s body back to Israel as quickly as possible, but ran into difficulty as she was not insured, and in the end enlisted the help of the Haredi-run rescue organisation, ZAKA. ‘ZAKA is an international humanitarian organisation that honours the dead, regardless of religion, race or gender,’ said the organisation’s chairman Yehudah Meshi-Zahav.”

People react differently to this sort of report. For some the news comes as a salve, a corrective to the bad news tsunami. Others read it and say, ‘Yes, but…’

Working at the Children’s Hospital recently I treated a child who wore a pink hijab. She did not look mid-eastern, nor African. Her surname was unusual. I wondered a bit then hazarded a guess:’Are you from Albania?’ Her dad was amazed. ‘How did you know?’ 

Then, ‘Where do you come from, Doctor?’

‘Australia. I was made here – with all Australian parts.’

I removed my whimsical hat, exposing my yarmulka.

The father practically whooped with delight:’ You are Jewish! How wonderful!’

Then, ‘Do you know the story of my people and your people during the Second War?’

I admitted I knew it but dimly.

Father filled me in: ‘Albania was one of the few nations to give Jews shelter. We hid them and protected them. And after the War, the Jewish Holocaust Centre here – in this city of Melbourne – honoured my people.

And do you know, Doctor, our mosque was Melbourne’s first?’

Some will read this and feel the salve. Some will react, ‘Yes, but…’

 

At the Fragrant Church

 
I went to the church today
Not, I admit, in order to pray –
Rather you might say,
To pry,
To spy.
 
Outside the church
In desert sun’s scorch
Littering the porch, lay
Gum droppings, eucalypt
Bark, twig, in mad disarray.
 
Silent the shrine,
White, quiet, fine,
And a smell rose up,
And spoke: ‘breathe deep,
Take pleasure, take, keep!’
 
Is it camphor?
In all candour
I cannot say, but can report
The heated gum odour
Lifted me wholly in transport.
 
The river gums here –
“My aspens dear” –
Grow, persist, survive,
Through rains, flood, mud
And when long droughts arrive –
 
And they speak to me
And say, ‘Wrinkled man, grey,
Gaze on our bark, ridged too
And stark, and keep good humour:
Breathe deep, deep, inhale our aroma.’
 
And so I do. And on church porch did today
Despite the heat, one hundred Fahrenheit,
To read what and when – I never dreamed if –
Services there’d be, on twenty-fifth. And confounded,
Found nought; no report. Really? Reel, sniff –
 
That sweet fragrance’ll
Endure by chancel,
By happy chance,
Though town’s broke and townsfolk
Leave with parting glance.
 
The church stands, white,
Quite quiet. And by it –
All around, littering the ground –
Pragmatic, aromatic, lies gumbark,
Fruit of time’s wound,
Immanent, permanent
And profound.

The coal resource exhausted, the town on death row, the mining townsfolk have drained away to seek their separate fortunes elsewhere. Too few faithful remain for a quorum or even a service on Christmas Day.

December Seventh

As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?

 

 

Musing, I walked to the tram.

 

 

It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.

 

 

December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745. 

 

 

Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.

 

 

It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.

 

 

I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.

 

 

In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.

 

In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.

He Contaminated the Language

When he said he groped women, when he said he grabbed them by the pussy, when he said when you are a star you can just go right in and do those things, he fouled the way humans communicate with each other.
 

Our words flow from our bodies, through air, through cyberspace, through waves. They emerge from our embodied minds, they bear our thoughts and our feelings, our fears and joys and dreams. They connect humans as only humans can be connected – unless you include angels that sing hallelujah and God who speaks from a burning bush or a mountain top, or in the wilderness in still, soft voice.

 

Language now lies soiled, tarnished, filthied. Who can use it without tasting that distaste? Who can write of man with woman, of humans with neighbours, of differing colour or creed or country, without feeling estranged from our fellow?

 

He has soiled our prized human heritage of words. He has broken wide the bridged divides. He has strewed our ravines with contempt and vulgarity.

 

He leaves us with dance, perhaps with music. Let us dance now, let us sing without words, let us strum and hum. Let us reach out, let us flail and wail for all whom he’d estrange. Let us bring them in whom he’d drive out. For they are us.