The Erratic Reader – II


Bloody newspapers! Having settled into my summer of crime I had little patience for newspapers or the news. The Weekend ‘Australian’ felled a forest in my palm. I looked sourly at the ‘paper’s unrelenting jaundice, directed uniformly in denunciation of the new mob who will steal government from the present mob. In this mood the ‘Australian’ deplores democracy. Deploring busily myself, I turned to the non-news. This is to be found in ‘Review’, the newspaper’s excellent weekly look at books and pictures and movies and dance and music and television shows.  In short, the arts.

 

 

Looking cursorily I leafed through the pages. As I did so I felt cursory; the accursed ‘Review’ was full of attractive material. I came to poems. Poems are hard, like algebra. Unlike algebra the trick is not to try to solve a poem, first listen to the music. Here (‘Review’, page 22) was Barry Hill, himself guilty of poetry, reviewing a book by another poet, Paul Kane. No, I hadn’t heard of him either. Kane’s book, ‘A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina’, is a lament for the poet’s wife, Tina, who died a few years ago. Barry Hill likes the book; I loved Hill’s review. I want to give you a taste of Hill on Kane on Tina, but what to choose? Better, what to omit? Not a word is dispensible. Here, at random:

 

It comes in the form of ghazals, the ancient lyric common to the Sufi poets writing in classic Persian (or Arabic, Turkish or Urdu), whose lines fell down the page in couplets that came to rest with a fresh mention of the beloved or the Beloved (sometimes called Master).

In any case, the Sufi exalted the visible as a song to the invisible.

 

 

Hill’s language is pregnant, heavy with knowledge and understandings, gravid with a scholarship I can only envy. Hill chooses the following lines by Kane:

 

“He never meant to write this, it simply took shape and wouldn’t let him go until it was over. But it will never be over for him, his heart inscribed with the name of the beloved, Tina”

 

and:

 

“At night I lie awake and call to you,

but you don’t reply, except in silence.

The night bird is not silent but sings

A simple single note. His mate does not sing back.

I do not understand this silence, as if God

Has departed and taken you with Him.

I have no words to form a prayer

That could reach you or Him.

Two wine glasses sit on the counter top –

One is full then only half full.

Without emptiness the glass could not exist.

If you should speak, Tina, the glass would shatter.

 

And back to Hill:

 

…Meanwhile, the ghazals, their pace and suspension, create a sense of time stretched to some mysterious limit, or of language floating on the waters of emptiness. “What words are these that well up like tears not shed?”

 

 

It took me quite some time before I could go back to Peter Temple’s ‘Dead Point”, my first Jack Irish novel. My first, definitely not my last. And now I’m on to Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry.’ Bloody crime writers writing literature. It’s enough to drive a man to Algebra.

 

Paul’s Passing

An attentive reader of this blog will recognise the name Paul Jarrett. Paul was my friend. He died last week aged ninety-nine years and eleven months. We had known each other by email for ten years. By the time we met in the flesh Paul was ninety-four. We were together in the flesh but thrice, and spent but five days in each other’s company. Yet his friendship enriched me. So long as my mind knows the truth Paul Jarrett will be with me.

 

 

 

Every day Paul sent out numerous emails to his friends and family, who numbered about eighty souls. I became one of those fourscore followers. By the time we became

e-friends Paul had retired from Surgery, he’d ceased piloting aircraft, he was living alone with his memories and his collection of ragged stray cats. The TV news fed his active mind, which would turn often to past world events. He’d recall those as well as people from his private life, teachers, relatives, colleagues, friends, and most keenly of all, his deceased wife Beverley. Paul would send emails, four or five or six in number. I read them all.

 

 

 

 

I came to know a man who believed in God, who attended his Methodist church every Sunday, who voted Republican, who supported gun ownership, who disliked Obama and who loathed Hilary Clinton and who loved cats. Paul described himself as a conservative. He said, I’m to the right of Barry Goldwater and he showed me a photograph of the two, taken around the time of Goldwater’s run for the Presidency. Goldwater was far to the right of any US president of my lifetime  (with the exception of the present incumbent, whose position can only be the fruit of daily conjecture and of analysis of the tea leaves of his Twitter account). Characteristically Paul never mentioned to me that Goldwater intended to appoint him to his Cabinet as national chief of Health.

 

 

 

 

I was none of those things that Paul was, yet a friendship grew. Paul and I both entertained a veneration of our late fathers and mothers that bordered on ancestor worship, we both loved Medicine, we cherished old friendships, we preferred the burnished past to the distasteful present, and we could smile at human error and laugh at ourselves. I’d read Paul’s emails and I’d enter a different world; I learned about earlier eras, I met remarkable people, I was challenged with novel viewpoints (frequently opposed to my own), I relearned Medicine I’d long forgotten. I knew I stood in Paul’s shadow but he saw me in my own light. I’m sure I felt flattered that such a man would treat me as his equal.

 

 

 

Paul and I shared a real friendship. I’d challenge him when his politics got up my nose and, unoffended, he’d defend his position. Paul’s penultimate year was spent grieving for the America he loved. He detested the Democrat candidate and felt offended by the Republican. He knew duty would call him to cast his vote. In his distress Paul’s agony was spiritual in its intensity. He would not shirk his duty. He must serve his country. Patriotism, that quality that cynics dismiss as the refuge of the scoundrel, burned brightly in my friend and he suffered for it. 

 

 

Let me share with you some of Paul’s very many letters. 

 

 August 2, 2015

My mind returns to the days when I would, by my mood and demeanor, sour a bowl of honey.

Beverley, who was acutely attuned to my moods would pinch my cheek, give me a pixyish

smile and say, “Be Happy”!

At first this would annoy me, then I realized that she never acted like I did, so there must be some choice in presenting a foul mood.

Some of us pull an ill disposition around us like a protective blanket.

Not Bev.  She was as careful about her demeanor as she was about her appearance.

 

August 11, 2015

I am not sure where the admonition to, “Feed My Sheep” ends and Backshish begins.

Never have I seen such a drive and competition for charitable funds nor such a constant demand for our attention so that we can be hit-up.  By phone, by mail, by door to door solicitation, through the Media and other advertising.  The sheer volume makes one suspicious that such an army of petitioners can not contain only those with charity in their hearts.

And all of this attention is not devoted toward appeal for charitable donations.  The phone just rang.  It was a canned message.  It said, “How are you?  Good.  Can you hear me all right?  Good.  (I had not said a word.)  Congratulations are in order, you have just won a vacation trip with two guests, all expenses paid, all you can eat—“  At this point I hung up.  That automatic dialer will call me back tomorrow.  Hopefully my automatic answering machine will converse with their automatic dialing machine and transcription.

Saturday I received 5 pieces of regular mail, 4 of which were appeals for money and one an advertisement for a Mexican Restaurant. 

I will admit that I could be a more cheerful giver, but in addition to wanting to hang on to my money, I am beginning to question whether or not I am getting my money’s worth?

We are living in times that can only be described as “Devious”.

 

 

 

“Now the Day is over, Night is drawing nigh.  Shadows of the Evening steal across the sky”.

And what a day it was.  The temperature hit 117 in the shade, and to add to the disasters brought in by August, Beverley’s Grandmother clock jammed the chain on the weight that powers the clock itself when it ran down.  My vision is not sufficient to fix it any more.  It has happened before and I have been able to get it going again, but my vision is no longer capable of accomplishing this.  Her clock was amazingly accurate, and I enjoyed hearing it chime the hours and quarter hours, during the day and through the night.

I have eaten a frozen dinner prepared for me by Ann, and am about to settle down in front of the television and nap before time to go to bed.  This is the daily routine.

A gracious good evening to all of you.

G’nite!

 

 August 16, 2015

It promises to hit 117 again this afternoon.

The poor cats do not have refrigeration, but they have cool spots under the shacks

and have thrived in this heat for many years. Sylvester as spokesman for the Etudiants,

scolds me for not permitting them to come inside where it is cool, but this falls on deaf ears when I consider the life of Riley they lead, and the amount of fur they leave behind.

I try and keep the bed outside the Breakfast Nook moist when it comes into the shade in the afternoon, which is the only air conditioning they are going to get.

When you stop and think about it, it takes some temerity to lecture me about the weather, and Sylvester may be spending some time in attitude modification in the near future.  He has lost a lower right canine tooth (if cats can have canine teeth), but I have observed no loss of appetite.  They are eating me out of house and home.

I worry about them though when I am called to my reward (whatever that may be).

 

 

 

 

 August 29, 2015

I was thinking about some unusual surgical cases I found myself involved with without adequate training or experience.  A surprise after opening the patient.

Having no other source of help in the urgency of the moment I prayed urgently and silently.

That ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things with God’s help, I can affirm.

 

 

 

October 11, 2015

I received a call from Bob and Dianne at the Cabin with Nikki this week-end.

Bob has the knowledge and ability to provide Satellite telephone service up there, and it works well.

They have had a lot of rain, the Pack Rat problem appears to be under control and the weather is nice with Fall in the offing.  Bob reports that the road up to the Cabin is in need of repair from rain damage, and he will be able to do that with his new tractor.  I think they return tomorrow.  There are some apples that are ripening and they will bring some for me.

Those Western Delicious yellow apples from Stark’s Nurseries are the best I have ever tasted, although late freezes make them available about once in ten years.

It is warm here, although comfortable.  We have what my Mother would call a “Buttermilk Sky”.  Little sun, a slight breeze and a great day to sit on the Patio and smoke a cigar.

It looks as if I may be around another Christmas, and I am making plans to prepare envelopes for my Family to insure their delivery.

The cats have made me a present of the head of a Roof Rat which they laid out on the Patio door mat.  I discarded it because I have no recipe for Roof Rat heads, although I appreciate the gesture.

 

 

 

Paul Jarrett has died. America has lost one of its big men, a patriot, a man of substance and integrity. Medicine has seen the passing of the last of his kind. A congregation has lost a faithful worshipper. We who were Paul’s friends have lost a wise man, a sort of prophet. Phoenix has lost an ornament. But whatever his greatness in the wide world, it was in the little corners of life where I saw Paul Jarrett’s meaning writ clear. It might be seen in his solicitude for the unpromising cats he succoured, in the empathy and in the respect he extended to those battered living things. Born into an era where males were born to rule, Paul esteemed women higher. 

 

 

 

Paul was the son who honoured his father and his mother; of two brothers Paul treasured and measured the greatness of the one, and cherished the second in his deformity. Paul was the husband who never ceased to love and to sing the praise of the wife he outlived for so many lonely years. Paul was the father proud of those stalwart sons, adoring of that dandled daughter; Paul was the grandfather who inspired grandson Benjamin to follow him into the guild and bond of medicine; Paul was the Methodist whose whole heart could celebrate his great-grandson’s bris. The measure of the man, Paul Jarrett, was the honour he paid to those he loved.  

 

 

 

More than once Paul wrote, “Great was the celebration in Heaven when Beverley arrived.” Such was the simplicity of Paul’s faith. Mine differs. But it gives me pleasure to imagine how great might be the celebration for that good and faithful man. 

Jogblog, 1

Around 1980 I came across a supposed distinction between a runner and a jogger. A runner, I was pleased to learn, was one who could beat one kilometre every five minutes. At that stage I could run the 42.2 kilometres of the marathon at a rate just quicker than 5-minutes a kilometre, finishing in three-and-a half hours or less. To be classed as a fast runner, you had to beat forty minutes for the 10K. Over the next fifteen years I raced a dozen 10K’s, finishing always in 42 minutes and 23 seconds, precisely. I was consistently not fast.

 

 

Running not fast, I’ve barely outpaced packs of semi-wild dogs on hot dusty outback tracks; I’ve chased my childhood along the perimeters of Leeton, where I lived my halcyon seed time; I’ve outpaced skinny dogs in Old Havana and reproachful cats in Israel; I’ve skidded on the black ice in New York City and plodded through the silence of snow falling heavily about me in Mount Kisco and Pittsburgh; I’ve run past the legendary spud farmer Cliff Young, and side by side with the heroic Manny Karageorgiou, who never stopped for Death until Death stopped for him. I’ve trained at Olympic Park as Cathy Freeman whizzed past me. I’ve run in the Rockies with Rob DeCastella, in Alice Springs with Steve Monaghetti, and in NYC behind the gracious Juma Ikaanga. I know I’ve dogged the heels of greatness.

 

 

Running alone on the scorched desert floor beneath The Breakaways out of Coober Pedy, on the abrupt slope of The Gap at Balgo, climbing the Snake Track at Masada, in the darkness before dawn at Uluru, I’ve encountered my sole self, arriving – it seemed – but moments after the Creator completed the work.

 

 

In the dark of a starless night in midwinter, following a road in the hills of the Diamond Valley, my feet traced the sole marker of my way, the luminous white median line on the bitumen. No sound save for my footfalls and my breathing. No hum of motor, no bark of guard dog, no lowing of cattle; just me, the sharp intake of breath, the slap of my foot. In that world of black I shivered not for the cold but for desolation. Then – a sound? – impossible. But heard again, approaching me, low, rhythmic, utterly unaccountable, utterly real sounds. Hairs stood rigidly erect. Then a collision! My legs registered some mammalian presence as I leaped into the air. A thoroughly startled wombat, a speechless runner, silence restored.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

 

The mother of my brother-in-law was a midget dynamo who’d survived Belsen. When I entered her orbit in the mid-70’s she reproved me for my waste of a life: “Marathon running is somehow disordered”, she said. She spoke with the moral authority of one who knew too much. I listened but I kept running. I considered her words as I ran marathons, some of them alongside my brother-in-law, her only child. I recalled the legend of Pheidipides of Marathon. I came to see my life as the marathon, a passage through time and space, blessed and made rich by encounters with those who make the passage with me, and before me, and who will jog on after I have passed. 

 

 

Rejoice my brethren. Ours is the victory.  

The Erratic Reader


Every so often I feel the urge to tell the world what I’m reading. I’ve thought, I’m going to write and tell the world about this essay, that novel, this poem, but I’ve almost never done so. The explanation is I’ve been too busy reading to jot down my reactions to the written material. And now that I’m actually beginning, it’s not because you need to know what I read and what I think, but because I need to nudge someone in the ribs and say, golly, wow, how beautiful, how sad, how simple and true, how complex and elusive!  In short I enjoy a treasure most richly when I can share it. The loneliest person in the world must be he who looks up and regards El Capitan and has no companion to share the wow.

 

 

Let’s start:

 

 

I’ve found the most effective way to make someone yawn is to read a poem aloud. This doesn’t stop me from doing it; the power and beauty of a poem so often compels me. 

 

 

My day starts with a package of poems. These are psalms, attributed to David, the poet-warrior king of ancient Israel. I read these religiously. Like all actions that are ritualised, the ritual intended to enhance meaning can bleach it out of sight. I regret how often I bleach out beauty through simple inattention. But when an accident of biorhythm or a pang of piety actually slows my recitation I can stumble across purple passages* like this:  

 

Praise God from the heavens

Praise Him from the heights

Praise Him all His angels

Praise Him all His hosts

 

Praise Him sun and moon!

Praise Him all starry lights!

Praise Him the utmost heavens!

 

 

****

 

 

Leviathans and all deeps

Fire! Hail! Snow and Mist

Wind of storm

All work His word

 

 

The mountains and all Hills

Fruit tree and all cedars

Carnivore and Behemoth

Creeping thing and bird on the wing

 

 

Earthly kings and all nations

Potentates and all earthly judges

Youths and also young girls

Old men together with young lads

 

Let them praise the Name of the Lord…

 

 

While you yawn let me tell you how I love this tumbling catalogue of beings and phenomena, its plenitude, its richness, as the poet, God-drunk, calls the roll of the universe; how he brings into chorus every voice (Creeping things! Snow! Leviathan! – did David imagine what we now know and record – that the great whales sing?) – his imagination fires his love into hyperbolic song. After King David I had to wait for Gerard Manly Hopkins for such spiritually excited verse.

 

 

As I remarked above, golly. 

 

*The translation is my own. Don’t blame King James.

SUMMER STORIES, III   The Fruit of the Vine

Here I am, alone among the thirty thousand-odd residents of Broome, the sole shomer shabbat*. For this evening’s sabbath meal I have challah, (the delicious plaited loaves of brioche), I have candles, I have cooked a delicious meal for four, (which I’ll eat unaided). But something’s lacking, the kosher grape juice for kiddush. I left it in the city and here in Broome neither Woollies nor Coles stocks kosher supplies. But they do sell grapes.  

 

 

No problem. Buy grapes, squeeze grapes, chant the kiddush, drink juice! I purchase green grapes, sweet and tasty; and purple grapes, great bursting spheres, less sweet but full of character. I’ll include both and create a rose. My technique will be the ancient one: crush the grapes underfoot in the old-fashioned way, with but a single variation: to create a tinea-free beverage, enclose grapes in a sealable bag, zip it locked, drop bag into a steel bowl and trample. Simple, yes? No. These grapes are tough. They’re putting up a fight. After a good deal of trampling I haven’t burst a single one. There they lie, those green pearls, gleaming insolently up at me. I tramp harder, engaging my heels now. No good. Intact still, my green foe lies unjuiced, defiant, at my feet.

 

 

It’s personal now. 

 

 

I try my luck with the purple. Those spheres, their skins looking stretched to breaking, should be easily persuaded. But no, stubborn atheists these, like their cousins in green. I clench a fist and regard its hard, cruel bones. I hoist the footbowl, place it on a bench top, rest my knuckles on the plastic bag and lean down hard. Something gives. Encouraged, I push down harder. More movement, a slipping. Anticipating free fluid, I look down. No juice, just grapes in a bag of plastic…and air! That’s the problem, I’ve been bouncing these demons inside their cushions of air! I unzip the ziplock, deflate it and apply my shoulder, my steeled upper limb, my fist, and I push down and rotate as I push. Now, now is my foe giving way. But the fight remains dour. Grape by grape they split, and grape by squeezed grape they yield their life’s juice.

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes pass. Both grape and grapist are sweating now.  After thirty minutes I have collected half a small glass of pale silvery juice and a similar volume of pinkish nectar. The two combined become a translucent rose. Violence grudgingly rewarded, a victor feeling strangely compromised. How did grape-squashing become a moral test? How did I fail it?  

 

 

 

Absent-mindedly I pop a green grape into my mouth. My tongue pushes the little balloon up against my bony palate. A little further pressure and the skin gives way. Sweet juice flows and my molars engage and grind the pulp. In midgrape my mouth stops its motion. Now I have it: this grape, like all the grapes of my life, had to be forced. Ostensibly a mild soul, have I hidden my innate violence in silent acts of mastication? Certainly a cruncher, an audible biter down, one whose apples snap loudly as I sunder them, who is it who bites thus? And what is it that bites me?

 

 

 

Might there be another way? There is another way, I know it, I’ve seen it. My mother, God rest her gentle soul, never burst a grape. Mum enjoyed grapes but brutality never occurred to her. Instead she’d peel a grape, slide it into her mouth and suck it to sweet oblivion. 

 

 

 

 

*Shomer Shabbat, one who honours the Sabbath, one who guards it and makes it holy.

Summer Stories, 2

Catch the Flying Undies Game

 

It all starts when six-year old Ruby decides to change from day clothes into her bathers for a beach picnic. She regards the undies she’d just removed and decides she’ll need them later. She flings them to her mum, standing nearby. “Catch!”, she shouts.

“You catch”, says Mum, flinging them back. Just then Joel runs into the room and, leaping, brings down a smart catch.

Adult applause, beaming seven-year old boy, hilarious Ruby.

 

The game is afoot. Ruby says, “It’s called ‘Catch the Flying Undies!’”

 

(Later the mother says to her father, “You have to write this story, Dad.”

I demur: “ Hard to write, darling. A game without rules or shape… And flying undies might be open to misrepresentation. Better for a mother to report to her friends on her social media. Older men should steer clear.”

“Since when did you ever play it safe, Dad?”)

 

 

Ruby runs at Joel and grabs at the undies. A tug of war, Joel, legless with laughter, tumbles backwards and yields the garment. Ruby swings her arm in a mighty arc and flings with all her midget might. She forgets to let go and the lump of fabric falls at her feet. Mum swoops, grabs, chucks and the little lump hits grandfather in the face. 

 

 

There’s a science to undie chucking, I find. Flung open, undies sail, stall and fall haphazardly. Tied tightly into a knot a pair of undies becomes a projectile that flies true. The adults learn the science and exploit it. The children never master the science. Instead they charge the person holding the garment and grab at it. Much tumbling, endless screaming, brief triumphs (pun unintended), misgrabs, misfires, children helpless with mirth, adults little better. Exultation, the sense of chance, some freak or wrinkle in Time, a moment of miracle, this once and never again ecstasy.  

 

 

 

The children whirl and leap and fall. They shriek in their delight in our unwonted adult craziness. They won’t allow the moment to end. As they whirl they lose all balance, fall drunkenly and shriek the more. The adults keep their feet but not their dignity. Whooping and jumping and flinging undies in endless keepings-off, we grownups are mad as the children are mad. They’ve admitted us to a world we had left behind and lost. We are become children again. 

Summer Notes, 1.

On the morning of our southern Solstice I step out into the summer and the heat burns my eyeballs. December 21 in the Pilbara, a vast desert area in Western Australia, is a little hotter than the local average of 39 degrees Celsius. The temperature rises day by day, astonishment by astonishment. Tomorrow it will reach 45. A patient agrees: “Yeah it’s pretty warm up here in Newman. Not as hot as Telfer, but. When I worked out there it’d get up to sixty.”

My patient is a blaster. His job is to place explosive charges inside great rocks and blast those rocks into manageable lumps for the dump trucks. (The trucks are bigger than my two-storey house). My patient continues: “You can’t do that work inside a cabin with aircon. You have to get out into the sun and do it. It can be pretty warm work.”

At lunchtime I drive my vehicle – yes, it has aircon, but the black steering wheel doesn’t know that: it’s too hot to touch. I steer with shirtsleeved elbows – and I park in the shade. Bracing myself for the heat outside I look up and watch an Aboriginal group as it files quickly across the sunburned concrete. Number One wears boots, Number Two wears thongs, Number Three wears nothing on his feet. He moves fast, his footfalls are brief, his gait a skipping as he literally hotfoots it to the supermarket.

While working a few years back in another mining town, this one in the Flinders Ranges, they told me of a young man who drove up into the Arkaroola hills and went hiking in the heat of the day. He carried insufficient water. When they found his body a day later it had been cooked.