Only Connect

 

 

The marathon began, like all my best marathons – and like all my worst – after too little sleep and too much coffee. Even before I start I know I will learn something today. Every marathon brings its own teaching.

 

 

 

 

I run alone. I train alone. All my running comrades have aged and retired, some defeated by injury, others redeemed by family. Alone, but never lonely, today least so, with friends waiting at Mile 23 and wife and kin at Mile 25. My wife Annette had her fill of marathons decades ago. The novelty of travelling to an inconvenient, often inaccessible rendezvous and waiting there for some hours just to sight and greet and embrace and encourage a sweaty spouse has worn off. Yet today bears the promise of Annette.

 

 

 

 

Fifty thousand-plus of us runners moved by ferry and by bus to Staten Island, New York’s forgotten borough. All had drunk copiously from early morning, against the inevitable drying out of our bodies during the run. After 90 minutes on the bus we debarked, bladders groaning, seeking relief.

 

 

 

 

I looked around me. I saw bushes aplenty but of toilets I saw none. The official marathon booklet warned us runners (on pain of disqualification!) not to use the bushes. I found a very long queue leading to the portable toilets which bore the name Royal Flush. I jiggled, moving from one foot to the other. Looking up, I saw many others in this queue and in others adjacent, dancing the urinary gavotte.

 

 

 

(I know no way of reporting the grit of the marathon without dealing with the seamy reality of the body. When we mammals run our bodies heat up. To contain that heating, a dog will pant, but we human mammals sweat. By the end of the marathon the human kidney is under siege from breakdown of muscle protein, the circulation struggles to compensate for dehydration, toes purple and balloon as blisters fill with blood. Elsewhere, armpits and scrota shed skin, nipples bleed, bladder walls abrade each other and haemorrhage into urine already laden with albumin and urea. The runner eliminates a scant flow of disreputable gravy. Great runners are not immune: champions of major marathons have voided into their shorts, have shat themselves when their bowels outran them, and/or shed public menstrual blood on their way to victory. It’s not a glamorous sport.)

 

 

 

 

The morning was crisp and bright. The sun streaming through the window of the bus had warmed me luxuriously, but once out of the bus I crisped up nicely. Dunkin Donuts make a drink they call coffee and Americans pay good money to drink it. For us runners the drink was free. I welcomed it for the warming. My Wave in the marathon would not start for two hours, so I sat in the lee of a large tree and read the Book Section of the New York Times. A thin lady with fair skin, her freckles pale in the sunlight, wore a shirt blazoned with the dying words of Pheidipides, ‘Rejoice, my friends! Ours is the victory!’ The young woman claimed Pheidipides as her running inspiration. ‘Mine too’, I told her. She said, ‘I tell the story to my little girls, but I don’t dwell on his dying.’ Soon we were talking about books and favourite authors, and time trickled away pleasantly until Marshalls called my Wave to the starting corral. I suppose that was the story of my day; simple connection with another that would blind me to small things like tedium and pain and tiredness.

 

 

 

 

The day, like the poets, starts in gladness and ends in madness. Events, faces, sounds, sights and crowds merge into montage. Memory becomes a scrambled egg. A body starts out full of running, it sobers and slows, it falls into a plod, later it labours, only to speed up again, endorphin-fuelled. By the end of the race I remember all, but chronology blurs.

 

 

 

 

Every runner contemplates three distinct finishing times – the one most likely; the acceptable slower time; and the secret time, very fast, of the runner’s dreams. A couple of months ago I ran in Alice Springs with an injury. I completed the 26.2 miles in 344 minutes, equating to a mile every 13.13 minutes. Feeling fitter now and more hopeful, I dreamed of running this marathon in eleven-minute miles. A marathon is one of those things dreams are made on.

 

 

 

 

One thing certain: if I run more quickly than I can sustain I will regret it later. With my mind full of calculation, I heard a cannon fired somewhere in the distance. Runners shuffled forward towards a Starting Line none could see, the roadway rose beneath our feet and abruptly we were running up the long incline of the bridge over the Verrazano Narrows. I tried to forget how high we were above the waters. I tried not to run too fast. I noted with dismay the rough, harsh concrete surface that jolted my joints with every step.

 

 

 

 

I looked from one to another of my fellow runners in all their heterogeneity. (That’s another secret – distraction by the human landscape.) I saw we were thin, we were fat, we were tall, we were short, we were of all races; some of us were twisted, some wasted, some blind; one ran upon a metal spring in place of a foot; we were young, we were old – one runner older still, for on his back I read, ‘Born Before WWII.’ The man was weedy, his trunk narrow and his hair long and wavy, a white savannah. He radiated a perky energy, his marionette limbs jerking along effectively at roughly my own pace. After a time I lost him but we were to cross paths repeatedly over the coming hours.

 

 

 

  

We descended from the bridge into Brooklyn where the first of countless New Yorkers came out to bless us and feed us and celebrate us as we passed through their multifarious neighborhoods. Those New Yorkers held aloft signs. Some named their hero: ‘Daddy, we’re proud of you!’ ‘Miss Jones, Grade 4 think you rock.’ ‘Lucy, marry me. Please shower first.’ Others were philosophic: ‘Pain is temporary, glory is forever.’ ‘Pain is temporary, Facebook is forever.’ And, ‘Pain is just French for bread.’ 

 

 

 

 

And one sign humbled me with, ‘Stranger, I salute you.’ (The shock of the true. Who is this who speaks thus to my soul?)

 

 

 

I was dreaming I suppose when a sign told me I’d run three miles in 29 minutes. Too fast! I knew already my hope of a good time was ruined, the work of mutinous legs and wild ambition.

 

 

 

 

Bluetooth carried music through my hearing aids. Suzanne started me, followed by Sisters of Mercy, then Hey, That’s no Way to say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, and so on, through the Leonard Cohen songbook, eighteen songs over one hour and 18 minutes. From the Start on the bridge from Staten Island the entire album carried me into Brooklyn, but not beyond. This, I realised, would be a slow marathon of many albums. “Graceland” next.

 

 

 

 

Numerous young women brandished warning signs: ’Run faster, I just farted.’ (How rude.)

A tall black man at a pedestrian crossing held a sign that urged the endless passing stream, ’Speed up. I’m waiting to cross.’ (I larrfed.)

 

 

 

 

We runners too wove a legible thread, of words worn on our bodies, some playful, some sombre. I read tee-shirts as I ran. Cancer was condemned, Muscular Dystrophy unpopular, diabetes damned.  When I read ‘Pancreatic Cancer’ – remorseless killer of numerous close to me – I gulped. Quite a few runners simply wore the two names, ‘Martin Richard’, without elaboration. Those names rang a bell from Boston, 2013; Martin Richard was the 8-year old boy blown up by the gormless younger bomber. The photograph in the papers showed a child standing on the pavement, gazing outward; behind him a young man in a peaked cap, at his feet the fatal backpack. That was Memorial Day in Boston, 2013, the day our folly lost its innocence.

 

 

 

 

Other signs memorialized a friend or parent – ‘This is for you Dad’ – occasionally the name and likeness of a child lost to cancer. ‘Charlene 10/13/08 – 2/9/14.’ All lightness sinks when you run behind that shirt and you contemplate the heartsickness of the wearer. Others wore the names of the Pittsburgh Eleven. (I was one of those.) 

 

 

 

 

After I’d run a couple of hours an ugly low bridge loomed ahead. That bridge (by name, Pulaski)  obeyed New York’s Law of Concrete Bridges, which ordains a cement surface, pitted and rutted, intensely hostile to the runner’s foot, ankle, knee and hip. The bridges of New York City are many. Next comes Queensboro, the great bridge from Queens to Manhattan. Lying in wait are the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Madison Avenue Bridge. The five bridges of concrete reality.

 

 

 

 

The Pulaski marks 13 miles, the halfway mark. By all accounts Mister Pulaski was a good bloke: 

www.polishamericancenter.org

 

[Kazimierz Pułaski, (English Casimir Pulaski, born March 6, 1745, Warsaw, Poland—died October 11/15, 1779, aboard ship between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.), was both a Polish patriot and U.S. colonial army officer, hero of the Polish anti-Russian insurrection of 1768.]

 

 

 

 

Good bloke or otherwise, to the runner, Pulaski means fatigue. By this point 13 miles felt to me quite sufficient. A tee-shirt ahead of me agreed: “Why didn’t Pheidipides fall at 13 miles?” Up, jolting and wincing, up Pulaski and over, and there, two-and-a -half miles ahead rose the great metallic arcs of the vast Queensboro.

 

 

 

 

In the company of The Boy in the Bubble I started the long climb. Into Graceland and beyond I climbed on. With Diamonds in the Soles of her Shoes I climbed still. Outside my earphones the world was quiet. Runners ran and breathed and grunted with effort. No crowds on the bridge, no wild animating distractions.

 

 

 

 

In the quiet I sensed my lips were moving, Hebrew words emerging. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” I am my sole self, again and ever the four-year old child reciting the creed. From that time I’ve recited that initial verse of the “she’ma”, twice daily. From that age I’ve known it to be the final prayer of the Jew at the moment of death. Why now? Why here? Perhaps it’s the relative isolation of these miles on the bridge, perhaps the mere mechanics of plod induce trance. I cannot say, beyond noting how, as I walk or run this earth, ancient prayer will surface unbidden. Liturgy-laced, my life has been framed by the times and seasons of the prayers.

 

 

 

 

I ran on and I heard my mouth say, “Uvlechtcha baderekh”, and I heard my father teaching us small kids, “And you shall repeat them unto your children, and you shall speak of them as you sit in your houses, as you walk upon the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”

 

 

 

 

On and up, on and up, Under African Skies I ran, on and up, Homeless and joint-shaken until the top where the road ahead was blocked by a huge red firetruck. The truck revved us up, its deep horn blasting, booming, blasting. Legs took heart, the road sloped down and to the left, freewheeling I allowed my speed to pick up as I jolted the long mile down to Manhattan.

 

 

 

 

In four previous NYC Marathons, First Avenue always defeated bonhomie. Debouching from the Queensboro Bridge, we ran into an ambush of ecstatic goodwill in First Avenue, with crowds wildly excited at our arrival in Manhattan.  Manhattan! – a name to conjure with, name of the great centre of excitement that is New York. However, runner beware:according to an article in the New York Times, Manhattan is derived from the local tribal language word Mannahatta, with a likely meaning, “island of many hills.”

 

 

 

 

Erst, the excited crowds were brief and the Avenue long. Crowds would thin, muscles flag, spirits wilt and on we’d run, and on, towards a distant island of further desolation, The Bronx. No desolation today: today the crowds do not thin, enthusiasm blooms at every side, the sun shines upon spectator and hero alike. Spectators in wild array, in every mode and manner of dress, watchers in love with their particular hero, in love with this stranger that is within their gates. The sun warms them, large plastic beakers of lager cool them and their cup runneth over. 

 

 

I’ve claimed often I’m the world’s slowest runner, adding, ‘a good walker will beat me’.  Here at 18 miles I see my words made flesh. Striding at my left a compact young woman (they’re all young now) walks smoothly past while I runshuffle on.

 

 

 

 

And here’s music!  A bunch of schoolgirl drummers, exuberant in sky blue, drummed and danced us up First Avenue. Harlem, where runners’ limbs are leaden, boomed to the beat of rappers. Everywhere rock bands with driving guitars and belting vocalists shook us as we plodded along, revving us up. All music up-tempo. In Brooklyn a Spiritual choir outside a church (emblazoned with the Star of David – go figure) flung soaring soprano sounds into the heavens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At twenty-two miles I overtook a young woman whose shirt read, ‘Running for Two.’ Apprehensively, wondering who she’d lost, I asked, ‘Will you tell me who else you run for?’ Her face lit up as she pointed to her belly: ‘My baby. I’m 10 weeks today.’ ‘Your first?’  (I meant the baby). ‘Yes’ – another bright grin – my doctor gave me the all-clear. (She meant the marathon.) The woman’s sheer delight infected me. Today, a maiden marathon, in 30 weeks a new human, born to love.

 

 

 

 

At length the golden light began to fade and the day cooled. At the same time my running slowed further and I too began to cool. I was heading up Fifth Avenue now, not that Fifth Avenue where every shop sells goods you don’t need and cannot afford, but a sylvan Fifth that curves and hides in the beechen green of Central Park.

 

 

 

 

Mile 22, mile 23, a steepish little uphill and I look around into the collar of crowd for a face I know. A doctor who has ministered to my family since my eldest daughter was 12 – that’s thirty-four years – has promised to meet me hereabouts with iced coffee. A voice roars from my left, ‘Howard!’and I totter over and accept a pint of the magic fluid.’ Brian and I shake hands, Onella beams, other voices from faces new to me tell me how great I am. And recharged with water, sugar and caffeine I’m of a mind to agree. Feeling at least a little greater I plow on, on toward another rendezvous.

 

 

 

 

 

The road curves and dips, the crowds are excited, solicitous, effulgent with love that seeks an object. ‘Nearly there! Nearly done!’ – they scream. People peer and read my shirt: ‘Australia! Australia! – seemingly exultant as their love is requited. 

 

 

 

The crowds bring me back in time to the marathons I ran with Melbourne Marathon Legend (his actual, formal designation) Manny Karageorgiou. The Melbourne crowds adored Manny, as he transcended his malignancy, time and again rising from his bed to run Melbourne, while his Greek soul dreamed ever of running the Athens Marathon –  the Marathon marathon. Manny died last year, his dream unrequited. Two weeks from today his son Panayioti will run Athens in Manny’s stead.

 

 

 

 

Mile 25, and when I sight upon my right a head of curls atop a short female form, I know I’ve arrived. My wife Annette runs from the verge, arms wide, smiling wide, and although there remain 1.2 miles to the Finish, I’ve arrived. I fall into those open arms and fold that small person and sob. A red head of curls at Annette’s right and a silver head at her left tell me my faithful sister Margot and my brother-in-much-more-than law John, are here too. Margot feeds me oranges that come all the way from China as I hold on to Annette, holding on for love, and holding so I won’t fall down. After a time I de-clutch and run on. And as in all my NYC Marathons, Margot runs alongside. The final mile and-a-bit are dull but painless. Nothing hurts as I crank the limbs into a jerky sort of sprint to the Line.

 

 

 

 

But someone else has fallen down. Mister ‘Born Before WWII’ lies face down on the bitumen. Gently, ever so gently, two large cops of the NYPD raise him from the road. His nose is bloodied but his smile is undimmed. ‘No, no, I don’t need a medic. No, I’m going to finish.’ With a cop cradling each arm, but under his own steam, the old man totters on. He will finish.

 

 

 

 

And as for me, my arrival happened before the Finish, back at Mile 25, back in Annette’s arms. I hurtle now across the Finish Line of diminished relevance, happy before I reach it. They give me a medal, they drape me in foil, they throw a blanket about me, but nothing hurts, nothing chills in this arrival, this return.

Appendix

And for the record Pheidipides Goldenberg, runner bib no. 57072, finished the  NYC Marathon in 5 hours, 34 minutes and 40 seconds, coming 118th of 231 runners aged between 70 and 75 years; 993rd of 1147 Australian runners.
The fastest Australian was Lisa Weightman (former Olympian, formerly Ondieki, nee Weightman), finishing in 2.29.11.
The fastest Australian male was Jarrod McMullen, finishing in 2.36.11.
The following day Jarrod crossed the North American Continent and the Pacific in 22 hours, seated next to Pheidipides Goldenberg, who crossed in the same time.

Summer Stories: A Small Town in the Bush

This blog has just now awoken from a long nap. While asleep the blog saw or visited or dreamed a number of summer stories. Here’s the first.

You might have heard of Avoca’s rushes. The gold rush, the coal rush, the bull rush.

You drive in on the main street and the first thing you notice is nothing. I mean the main street is wide, country town wide. And nothing moves.

You know you’ve arrived in an Australian country town when nothing happens. Unlike the classic barroom scene in the Westerns, where the arrival of the newcomer throws the crowded bar into silent, menacing scrutiny of the arrival, you arrive in Avoca unremarked.

People reside in Avoca but no-one rushes here. The rushes are over. The bull rushes persist, but they persist in a gentle way. The bulls graze, they browse, they produce their climate-malignant methane and they do their business and they leave their calling cards. Only when serving a cow does the Avoca bull rush. Avoca is no Pamplona.

In the main street the structural element of the bovine persists in the shape of the Cow Shed Café. I saw the cafe and, metropolitan coffee snob that I am, I drove past. On a later visit the Cow Shed Café was still there. So I stopped. I found the shop is wider than it is deep. Within the narrow oblong between the shop’s front and the high counter you stand closely surrounded, indeed compressed, by handicrafts. You can buy doilies and crocheted items that are rich in colour and of no function that I could divine. They look like something your granny might make for charity or for therapy. But these are for commerce. You can buy them. Postcards that show the Cow Shed Café sit on the counter awaiting your purchase. Next to the postcards an array of jams and sauces and syrups and chutneys gleams at you. These are Avoca’s café’s crown jewels. Behind the counter a man as tall and narrow as his shop stands and awaits your pleasure. He’d be fifty, perhaps a decade more, the skin of his brown face hangs in deep furrows, his voice is deep, resonant and very pleasing. You hear the voice and you know you want to have a conversation with this jam and doily man.

‘Who makes these jams and sauces?’

‘Mother. Mother makes them all.’ A sweep of a long arm encompasses all the handicrafts and the comestible preserves. ‘Mother picked these raspberries this morning.’ I hadn’t noticed the berries. Bright like the doilies they call, Buy me! Buy me!

‘Lived here long?’

‘All my life. Mother too. We’ll all leave one day, feet first.’ The man smiles and the smile and the voice merge, a single harmonious entity.

I buy some bright things and I leave.

The historic records evoke old Avoca: “In 1827 Roderic O’Connor wrote in his journal – ‘There is a vacant space immediately at the junction of the South Esk and St Paul’s River. We beg to recommend reserving it’. In 1832 military troops, formerly at ‘St Paul’s Plains’, were recorded as garrisoned at Avoca.”

By 1834 Avoca was a town.

Apparently old Avoca was always a place of drama and event, as today. The record goes on: “Bona Vista’ (circa 1842) is a magnificent Georgian homestead built by Simeon Lord and doubtless the centre of society at the time. Martin Cash is said to have worked there as a groom before becoming a notorious bushranger. In 1853 bushrangers Dalton and Kelly made a raid on the house, committed a murder and robbed the house. Blood stains remain on the steps. In 1890 a young man named Beckitt was murdered at the homestead woodheap, his body dumped in the South Esk River to be discovered by Tom Badkin Jr.”

The stone building calls to me and I approach and mooch around, here and at the church. A country quiet enfolds all. The afternoon wind softly sighs and soughs. The sun shines upon the green and the old convict stones speak mutely of endurance, modestly of grandeur. So fine these stone walls, their patterning and proportions so pleasing to the eye that sees not the aching backs and the cruel sufferings of the convicts who were the unwilling labourers.

A Post Office opened at Avoca on 1st Jan 1838. It stands still on the main road. I slow and read a sign outside offering the fine stone structure for sale. I stop and mooch. Naturally I want to buy it. I could do with a Post Office. But I’ll stand aside for you if you want it too.

Avoca lies in the Fingal Valley. Forty kilometres distant, Fingal is a town similar to Avoca. A nurse I work with tells me: ‘I grew up in Fingal. But I left. I realized single in Fingal might be my epitaph so I left.’

Men, Today we Die a Little

Emil Zatopek spoke those words to his rivals at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon, in Melbourne in 1956. Throughout his career Zatopek regarded every other runner as a comrade. He talked to everyone everywhere he went. He befriended everyone, including his opponents, chatting with them as they raced. In this respect Emil and I are brothers.

On that marathon day, a Saturday in early December 1956, I was nearly twelve. I had worshipped Zatopek for some time. Later generations do not recognise that name but aficionados – among them Australia’s Ron Clark – remember Emil Zatopek as the greatest Olympic distance runner of all. (What? You don’t know who Ron Clark was?) The marathon course took runners from the stadium, out along Dandenong Road to Dandenong, where they turned for the run back to the MCG. Standing with my mother at the foot of my street in suburban Oakleigh, I picked out Zatopek as he approached, short, balding, a ball of muscular effort. He was not among the first three or so. I ran alongside my hero, racing him from the nature strip. I beat Zatopek over one hundred metres then left him to his devices. Long past his best, injured, unwell, he completed the marathon, finishing in sixth place. 

Sixty years later, in Malta, I was prepared to die a little. Malta was hilly, the roads uneven and hard, the weather brutally clement. Add to that my very late decision to run, and my token training, and I deserved to die more than a little.

I set my alarm for 0445 hours. I booked my cab for 0545. I lay down and sweet sleep enfolded me. My alarm never rang; sleep abruptly forsook me at 0300, leaving me to wrestle with a now hostile pillow and futility. At 0330 I gave up, got up and switched off the redundant alarm. I contemplated the coming day sourly. If you run a marathon with a sleep debt the late miles will claim settlement; effectively you fall asleep on your feet, concentration falters and resolution slumbers.

So I did what any drug addict does. I brewed and drank a thunderbolt coffee. Then I recited my dawn prayers. Then I did what any drug cheat does. I drank some more strong coffee. It was a thoughtful cheat who drained that second cup. There would be no more caffeine until after the race. In every other marathon runners deposit their personalized drinks before the start. These drinks are marked with the runner’s name and the relevant kilometer mark. As we approach every 5K mark we know our drinks await us. My drinks always contain Coca Cola, which, so the label informs me, contains only natural ingredients. The natural ingredients that interest me in a marathon are water (check) sugar (double check) and caffeine (check, check, check). Malta has no provision for personalised drinks – water and a sports drink only – and as I was to learn, even these might fail. So there’d be no further euphoriant chemicals to carry me through Zatopek’s valley of the shadow.

Being awake so early I bolted a slug of sustaining bircher muesli I had prepared a couple of days earlier. Over the couple of days my bircher had set into the consistency of drying cement. The cement sat in my gullet, a solid and present companion that would keep me company well after the coffee stopped working.

The cab dropped me at the ferry terminal in Sliema. From there our prepaid buses would take us to the start in Mdina. (Have you been to Mdina? You must. Around the Mediterranean, ‘mdina’ – derived from the semitic word ‘medina’ – signifies the old city. This particular old city sits atop hills, a fortress from its inception, its honeyed stone walls shining in the sun. I have visited and loved and gone mad time and time again in Jerusalem’s old city, a city most particular to me; and yet I have to declare, by narrow aesthetic criteria, I find Malta’s Mdina Jerusalem’s equal. And in both cases, the city’s geography is its history. Situated at strategic geopolitical crossroads, both have been loved, contended, changed hands again and again, and remain beautiful, beloved and blood drenched.)

Before the Marathon


The bus slid through the dying night. Runners from everywhere chatted in the dimness. I heard African accents, Asian, singsong Italian, German, and Eastern European tongues heavy in consonant and intensity. Regional British accents all around, French too, somehow always a whispering music. Four thousand would run, but only 900 of these would run the full 42.195 kilometre event. Of these Maltans are a small proportion. I suspected Pheidipides Goldenberg constituted the entire Australian contingent. 

The race information booklet advised the oldest male in the full marathon was one Giuseppe Balzarini. At 78 this fellow would be seven years my senior. A skeleton in a bright yellow shirt stood suddenly before me. His face of olive skin hung in deep stubbled folds. He had some teeth, not many, but all of them flashed me a brilliant grin. His right forefinger extended, nearly touching my own yellow shirt: You. How many?

Seventy one. My own index finger came into play: Which country?

The face showed incomprehension. His palms opened interrogatively: How much?

I showed the man seven fingers, then a single digit.

Ahh! Huge smile. The man indicated himself: Me…he showed me seven fingers then eight. His teeth were overjoyed. Then the man – the name on his shirt read not Giuseppe but Edouardo – did something unexpected. He extended his right hand once again, and brought it close to my cheek. Once, twice, Edouardo soft palm patted my cheek. An uncle could not have touched me more tenderly. Of course, my own hand rose to Edouardo’s face and did the same. Chest to chest, smile to crooked smile, we were two Zatopeks. We stood for a moment, then he was gone. I hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally we had arrived at the Start an hour before starting time. Naturally we all used the Portapotties. Mildly grotesque and richly comic are these lines of runners waiting to discharge some of the surplus we have so purposefully taken in. We stand or jiggle or dance, all of us declaring publicly a quite private intention. We wait and we wait, none of us knowing in what condition we will find the accommodation. (Beyond silently thanking my obsessive precursor I forbear here to report.)

But I can tell you on emerging I found it pretty cold up there on that hilltop, the wind rising from the Valetta plain, coaxing gooseflesh from my limbs. I found the numbered van corresponding to my race number and deposited my bag of possessions in the back. Then, sneaking around the front I let myself into the driver’s cabin, tried to make myself invisible, and let my flesh thaw.

The race was to start at 0730 hours. At 0710 my solitude was disturbed: You alright?

It was the driver. Yes I was alright, thanks.

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

At 0720 my bladder had an afterthought. Back at the Portapotty queues a fair-haired runner named Michelle provided entertainment for us latecomers. A stocky young person, Michelle did not look African lean. I doubted she’d last the distance. (I was wrong.) But as a sprinter she was quite good. As soon as a Portapotty door swung open Michelle would race forward, only to find opportunity snatched from her. This open door was for males only, that open door was the same, this other one opened all right – exposing the buttocks of an occupant who wasn’t expecting company. Michelle danced on the spot, whether to warm up or to maintain continence, the effect was to divert us from our private concerns.

At 0725 the Public Address summoned us to the Start. At 0729 and fifty seconds the PA voice said ten seconds to go. Let’s all count down! Nine hundred voices complied. Zero! – cried the nine hundred. Go! – cried the PA. And we did. Tragically the first kilometres downhill from the citadel of Mdina were downhill. Utterly seduced, my legs flew. For the time being my body, cement bircher included, was weightless. Of course I could not catch my breath. And my sanity fled far away, not to be overtaken for twenty kilometres.

 

What followed in the next five hours will not hold your interest. I recall it all, of course, but wish to forget it. The marathon organisers warned runners the event would conclude at 1300 hours – fully five and a half hours after the start. After that, runners would receive no medal, their finishing times would go unrecorded and unreported. I thought five-and-a-half hours long enough to have a birthday: surely I’d beat the deadline. I had drawn up my plans, dividing the 42.195 kilometres into hopeful ‘quarters’ of 11 kms, 11 kms, 10 and 10.195 kms. I allowed these splits 70, 75, 80 and 90 minutes respectively, totalling five hours and fifteen minutes. A finishing time that would rank with my Personal Blushful Worst.

Of course everything transpired otherwise. Too fast in the first stanza, too undigesting in the second, too beaten up in the legs by Malta’s rocky roadways in the third, too thirsty in the fourth. Thus reads my list of excuses. 

It is true that the shabby mobile kiosk at 28 kms was emblazoned with the sacred words: Coca Cola. But the bewhiskered vendor had no change of my twenty Euro note. He offered me the drink gratis, but I waved his offer away. Even an addict would not rob the poor. It is true too that the water stations at 30 and 35 kilometres ran dry before my arrival at the tail of the field. I felt grumpy for a bit, a new sensation in a marathon. My uncharitable feelings quickly evaporated in the glorious sunshine – unseasonable, given Malta’s weather patterns for late winter. From the five kilometer mark onward I ran bare-chested, bare-bulging-bellied too – not a flattering look but a practical one.

The 30km mark


The final stanza of the course passed through a light industrial estate, a place barren of cheer or cheering crowds. There were none of the uplifting musicians of the first stanza. Thirty-two bands were named in the race brochure. Of these most of the final sixteen were packing up by the time we of the tail reached them. The brochure promised clashing drums, blasting brass, oompahing tubae, and so there were initially. But I could see the matter from the viewpoint of the musicians. By the final kilometres individual runners were spread out, separated by up to 200 metres. A band numbering eight musos might feel a bit absurd playing to one struggling runner.

How different, how soul nourishing was the raven-haired beauty who sang to me at the thirty-seven kilometer mark. (Yes, I appreciate your scepticism here – had it been a veritable Gorgon playing a guitar and singing I’d have felt an uplift. But truly she was beautiful.) The young woman might have been about twenty. Seated alone in a wilderness of concrete, on an ordinary kitchen chair, long black hair falling heavy behind her, guitar on her knee and a mike in front, she gave voice. Sounds issued from her throat that soared upward to the heavens whence they surely came. A moment of joy. When I think of it now – sober, rested, replenished of fluids and foods, and yes – of caffeine, that joy returns. It remains, a treasure to which I can return, long after my week of days in Malta.

38 Kms, read the sign at the roadside. At sea level now, tracing the shoreline of the bay I could not wait for the finish. I shuffled past that sign alone. In the near distance ahead a stocky form and a fall of fair hair told me how wrong I had been in underestimating Michelle. Yet I knew I would overtake her. Surely. Light footsteps behind, a flash of bright yellow far to my left, and this was Edouardo, plowing on, on, looking neither right nor left. I decided I would sneak past Edouardo. I would be the first septuagenarian to cross the line. I moved to the far right of the course, where my rival might not notice my challenge. I drew ahead. Then I looked at my watch – I had 28 minutes for less than four kilometres. I could do that comfortably. Then comfort undid me. I stopped that loathesome running and I walked.

Now Edouardo drew abreast of me, now inching past, he left me behind, a moral ruin. I resumed running, without conviction, without really trying. Michelle receded. Edouardo flowed on. I plodded, I walked, I ran. I lacerated myself with self censure. Around a bend, I looked in vain for the finish. Around another bend, two bright figures, walking in the opposite direction, waved and cheered me on. I recognised the tall woman in her thirties and her male companion, she from Sweden, her husband British. Both wore Finisher’s Medals. I had made their acquaintance at the seven kilometre mark. This was their first marathon, their training had been nugatory. We’d exchanged hoped-for finishing times, we wished each other luck. And now the tyros had shown the veteran how it was done. The encounter lifted my spirits. From that point on – perhaps the 41Km mark – I mainly ran.

Around one more bend, I lacked the courage to look up for the Finish Line. But the crowd noises told me I was close. And the Public Address blaring: and here comes another runner, Ladies and Gentlemen. Cheer him on, help him beat the cut-off time.

I lifted my feet, raised my head, pumped my arms, achieving an ugly sprint. The crowd roared, quite deceived into thinking I had been trying my best. The numbers on the clock astonished me: five hours, 28 minutes. I plunged across the Line.

A banana and a bottle of water materialized in my hands, a foil blanket covered my too hot shoulders, and a medal – the medal – hung heavy from my neck. I shambled forward a hundred metres or so then settled down on a concrete kerb to negotiate nausea. A pair of brown legs approached, stopped within a metre. It was Edouardo. With all my heart I congratulated him. Once again I asked, From what country do you come?

Italia! – and that smile again. We shook hands. The better man had won and I loved him.             

And that was number fifty.
 

Last Coffee at the Prairie Hotel

 

It will be centuries/before many men are truly at home in this country,/and yet, there have always been some, in each generation/there have always been some who could live in the presence of silence.*

 

Have you ever visited Parachilna? Situated in the remote north end of the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian outback, this town is reckoned to have a population of six souls. The principal edifice in the town is the Prairie Hotel. If you visit this pub, as I have, repeatedly over the past two decades, you will count many more bodies than the half dozen you might expect. We come in all our different ages and stages to Parachilna and we stop at the Prairie Hotel. We come – grey nomads and graziers and gourmands – we come in our large SUV’s, our battered utes, our private planes. We arrive for the famous food, the haunting landscape, the novelty, the romance!

 

Though I myself run to the cities. I will forever/be coming back here to walk…up and away from this metropolitan century…*

 

I come for the coffee and the company. Around Christmas time, with summer blazing in the Flinders, the nomads have fled back south, tourism has withered and the hills stare back at the bleaching sun. The world lies silent, listening to its aeons. The Prairie Hotel is old, its walls of stone thick, holding the heat at bay. In this heat and desolation eccentrics and locals gather in the cool of the bar of the pub.

 

 

And some, I have known them, men with gentle broad hands,/ who would die if removed from these unpeopled places…*

 

At this time of the year Christian doctors have joined their loved ones in the moist green down south, leaving in their place a locum, old, wearing his Jewish hat. In that sense I am both eccentric and a local. 

 

Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills/…for the sake of belonging…/the city will never quite hold me. I will be always/coming back here…to see, on far-off ridges,/ the sky between the trees, and…to hear the echo and the silence.*

 

I mentioned the coffee. If you hate coffee most places in the Flinders Ranges will reinforce your hatred. But if you revere the sacred bean, come drink at The Prairie Hotel. There, Lachlan Fargher presides over a serious espresso machine. There I drop in year upon year, unannounced. Lachie looks up, says, ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I nod, Lachie bends his handsome head in concentration and soon I sip that elixir that brings me on a drive of sixty-seven kilometres (each way) every lunchtime of my fortnight locum. (Excepting Shabbat. I sure as shit don’t drive on Shabbat.) Others come to drink the eponymous Fargher Lager, others to eat the famed Feral Grill, a collation of native viands, not – I regret – kosher.

 ‘To everything under the sun there is a season…’ All ends, everything passes. That’s what nostalgia is for. The North Flinders is a treasure house for the nostalgist; in Brachina Gorge, see geological striations in great walls of rock telling their mute tale of aeons unimagined; in Arkaroola, note and lament the passing of the ediacaran, whose fossils mark the first life on earth to have nerve cells organised to process sensation; and note the lonely stone walls – unroofed but still erect in their noble proportions – of dwellings abandoned by pioneers whose hearts cracked in the long droughts.

 

Add to this is my own lament. With the passing of the unlamented, lamentably polluting coal resource in Leigh Creek, the mine has closed. Soon the Clinic that served the mine will close too. In future summers the North Flinders will not summon its Jewish locum.

 

Driving south yesterday, at the conclusion of a medical estivation in Leigh Creek, I stopped at the Prairie Hotel. Lachlan Fargher looked up: ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I looked at the Aboriginal paintings in the Dining Room that is really a gallery of fine art. I took in the old timbers, the scarlet collection tin for The Royal Flying Doctor Service. I took in Jane Fargher, Licensee, the brain and spine of a brave enterprise. I looked at Lachie, his black curls bent over his machine; at Avalon, springtime’s barperson. Tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow, the former will brew Aussie coffee in Nashville Tennessee and the latter will practise criminal law. I drank my latte, said goodbye and drove away.

 

 

 

• Fragments of ‘Noonday Axeman’, by Les Murray

 

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.

 

Letter to the Young Person Who Pinched my Book

 
Dear…..,

I forget your name. We met only once and it was a couple of years ago. You were a new waiter and I was an old coffee drinker. I ordered, you brought me my coffee (strong latte, in a glass, steamed milk on the side) and I opened my new book. The bright cover caught your eye. You made some remark and I was surprised: not everyone would be interested in the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

I was just back from working at the foot of Yulara. The city hummed and throbbed and clanged around me but the red earth still glowed within me, the emptiness, the stillness and the silence still called. I opened my book. For a paperback it was pretty pricey, around seventy bucks. But for an art book it was a steal. There on the cover were two aged Aboriginal women, proudly holding their distinctive animal sculptures. Like Yeats’ ancient Chinese in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ –

    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, 

    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

(Writing at a time of conflict, Yeats sees ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. By ‘gaiety’ Yeats means the creative drive of the artist.)

 

 

Forgive me, I digress.

 

 

I lingered over the images. My women weavers, or sculptors, all come from the fantastically named Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjanjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities. Have you ever come across such challenging place names? I’ve worked in those desert communities and still I struggle to say them right. In the pages of my book you’ll have learned the great secret of the weavers’ ‘desert’ country: with the changing seasons the desert erupts in blooms. You see colours unimaginable in the landscape and you find them again in these flimsy frail pieces of woven whimsy.

 

 

It was time for me to go. I rose and went to the counter to pay. Somehow you materialised at my side and somehow I parted with the book. As a loan. I left, delighted to share in the city’s grey morning all that gaiety and light.

 

 

When I returned to the café the following week, you weren’t there. I never saw you again. I never saw my book again. What happened? Did you leave the job for a better one? Did you leave town? Did your mum get sick, back in Sweden? I don’t imagine you saw the book and whispered to yourself, ‘I think I’ll pinch that.’

 

 

And what prompted me to part from a new book and lend it to a new waiter? Was it the coffee? I’ve done madder things after drinking coffee. Was it some small kindness, some act of courtesy, some swirl of skirt or flash of dimpled smile?

 

 

I don’t remember how or why. I don’t remember your name, I scarcely remember your face. I do remember my feeling of unexpected pleasure when you showed an interest. I hope you have the book still in Sweden or Iceland, and the Tjanpi women weave gaiety into your life.

 

 

 

About Tjanpi

Katangku kuruntu kulira kunpu palyanma Making Strong works with a Strong Heart

Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi) was initiated by NPY Women’s Council in 1995 in response to an expressed need by Anangu women for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment.

 

Coiled basketry was introduced at workshops held in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Within two years, artists were making a quirky range of sculptures as well as baskets, and by 2000, weaving had spread right across the NPY region.

 

Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going?

This blog has spent the Passover period training for the Boston Marathon. Training has consisted exclusively of that intensive form of carbo loading which is the consumption of loads of matza. As matza is highly constipating carbo unloading has presented a challenge. Reminiscent of Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with his bowels, the Passover observer passes little.

In short I have been busy: as a result the blog has followed the admirable maxim of the ancient Sages of the Mishna: “Do much, say little”.

Shortly the blog will have much to report: of a visit to sit at the feet of another Ancient Sage, Dr Paul Jarrett, 95-year old surgeon of Phoenix Arizona; of fetching myrrh to Jack, the new babe born unto us Goldenbergs in San Francisco; of drinking GOOD COFFEE ! in New York City!!! (at ‘Little Collins’, my nephew’s celebrated joint on Lexington Avenue); of learning the latest in neuroscience from Joseph John Mann at Columbia Presbyterian; of Shabbat observing in New Rochelle; of entraining to Boston on the Sunday; and on Monday 20 April of observing Patriots Day in Boston.

On Patriots Day much is afoot in Boston, when this Athens of the United States becomes Sparta. The public holiday commemorates the ride of Paul Revere and the start of the American Revolution. (I refer to Boston as Athens as an incubator of wisdoms but also as the place of Gauguin’s masterwork, ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’ That painting and its title encapsulate the entire enterprise of human storytelling.
The painting is strategically located in a gallery situated directly across the road from Dunkin Donuts [Aussies must indulge the local spelling] where the donuts are certified kosher. But I digress.)

gauguin.org.au

For us runners Boston is THE marathon. More broadly, Boston, most humane of cities, hosts the most charitable of marathons. The event admits both the athletic elite and the footslogger, those who qualify by their speed over 26.2 miles and those who qualify solely by fundraising. I belong to the fundraising sluggards. This will be my fifth Boston, a further opportunity to put my feet to the service of the good. Unavoidably we come here to evil: in my old home town of Leeton a bride who loved the colour yellow is murdered unaccountably one week before her wedding day; in Boston bombs explode the innocence of thirty thousand runners and one million natives. Three die, two hundred and sixty four injured – many grievously – survive.

And I ask myself: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?

The small town of Leeton turns out to honour lost youth: multitudes gather in the park wearing yellow; married women hang their bridal gowns on front fences; on the victim’s planned wedding day brides all around the country add a dash of yellow to their apparel.
In Boston the city grieves, runners shake their heads, and return to the marathon with intent. Among them is one Gillian Reny.

“The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will support life-giving breakthroughs in limb reconstruction, bone regeneration, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and skin regeneration. Established by the family of Gillian Reny—a young, pre-professional dancer who was critically injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—the fund will fuel cutting-edge research and clinical programs in three areas:

Stepping Strong Research Scholars
: The Research Scholars project has two components: using stem cells to advance bone regeneration, and developing better methods to regenerate skin and heal wounds to reduce the suffering of amputation.  

Stepping Strong Trauma Fellowship
: The Trauma Fellowship will train the next generation of trauma surgeons in advanced techniques for treating acute and complex traumatic injury. Fellows will gain proficiency in surgical management, rehabilitation, limb reconstruction, and scar management.

Stepping Strong Innovator Awards: 
To inspire innovative research in areas including limb regeneration, limb transplant, advanced stem cell technology, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and bioengineering, BWH will offer Innovator Awards through an annual, competitive, request-for-proposal process. These awards will fund high-reward projects by our best and brightest physician-researchers.”

This is the good for which my feet will run on Monday April 20. This, like the wearing of the yellow, is the good that transcends evil. This is the good to which you can contribute. Go to: