Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/profile_mask2.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

Mending the Broken Runner

Spring months are the cruelest, mixing memory and desire. And I have felt the sun soft on my skin, have woken with birds that called me, watched the young and the not young but not broken, all at their running, running, running. And I have felt self-sorrow, sincerest of emotions, and I have felt the creeping entry of a green stranger. And I have resented and I have envied those runners, their unforgivably beautiful limbs, their light and loping tread. In short I became that miserable creature, the broken runner.

Yesterday I drove with daughter and grandboys to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. All was as ever it was; emu browsing, shy wallaby, slow wombat, delicate birds, hills, hills, hills, bouldered beaches and the odd ‘mountain’. Only in Australia, and perhaps the Netherlands, would you grace Bishop and Oberon as mountains. But when you run them your legs cry out and the mind, the mind has mountains.

There was Mt Bishop. We drove past and I told the kids, I used to run up there, all the way to the top. Unable to see the top, too small, too low in the car, the kids made no response.

This morning I awoke and the cabin slept. My knee felt OK. There were the car keys, here were running clothes unrun-in for five months, no family duty called, no excuse. Five minutes’ drive to the track saved me twenty minutes’ running dull bitumen. Here was the track, sandy, scattered with leafmeal, meandering into bush. My legs smiled and snuffed the battle with delight.

And I was running. And nothing hurt. And my lungs kept up with my legs. I ran carefully, judiciously. I avoided rocky footfalls, I paced myself, I spared the left leg and I climbed.

I climbed the twisting turning tilting track, gently, gently, enquiring ever of the knee, feeling no angry response.

The track was mine, mine alone, mine this domain, this splendour, these rugged crags, that ribbon of silver of tidal river, the dull green of bushland, the sweeter green of spring growth, the dead trees white, trees blackened by the fires but shooting green, greening too the great denuded gorges scoured by the floods.

All this juice and all this joy, all for me, a message, a consolation, hope in dried tubers.

The track softened beneath my gladding feet, the gradient gentled, the summit sighted.

There at the summit, the track ended at that same old tumble of broken shapes and abrasive surface: Snack Rock. Slowly I climbed those last metres, transferring weight, o so cautiously, sparing the knee, old man’s knee, unwelcome stranger’s knee, imperious ruler for five months of my youngering spirit.

I offered a line of thanks and ate my apple. I took my first selfie. I photographed the terrain.

And down I ran.

Now, descending, pain pounced and grabbed the rear of the injured knee. Small pain this, the same as I feel on the bike, pain of no portent. And as on the bike, brief of tenure.

Down, down, down, through avenues of wattle unnoticed earlier by the runner with head bent on the ascent. The wattles arching over me, an avenue of honour, reminding me, reminding me of the day I ran into a bunch of hockey players blocking the path ahead of me. This was a serious run, a timed solo marathon to qualify for entry to the hundredth running of the Boston Marathon. A cry from their leader, “Guard of Honour, Guard of Honour!”; and the hockey guys fell into two lines, raising sticks above my head, applauding me as I ploughed on.

There is honour in the long run, a tearful thankful joy, a discovering of the self. I felt all those, all that old knowing, all those strong sensations. And something else, something new – signs of life.

‘Joyful’ by Robert Hillman – A Review

There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.

What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”?  I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.

Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.

I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.

joyful“Joyful’s” characters are destined to live in memory alongside Winton’s Fish and Lamb families that emerged from “Cloudstreet” and took up lodging in a nation’s treasury.

Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.

Patriots Day 2013

The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most celebrated of the mass marathons. You need to qualify. Twice I qualified and ran. in 2005 I ran again, this time as fundraising runner. I never won the race: hometown decisions, I guess.

Today’s Boston was to be my fourth. I was running as a fundraiser, this time for the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre. This morning I visited their HQ in Hopkinton, near the starting line. I met people who face their colossally difficult lives with genuine joy. I met the fundraisers who punctuate their serious marathon training by devoting themselves for months to help fund this small enterprise.

Why am I going on at this length about these small matters in the face of the bombings?

You need to be in Boston on Patriots Day to appreciate the celebration that is the Marathon. A city of less than one million comes to a stop; people take their chairs, their picnic rugs, the treats they will give to the runners; they line the 26.2 miles and stay all day, cheering on every runner; they hold banners – everything from “You are all Kenyans” to “Kiss me, I’m flexible”.

Picture Melbourne on Cup Day or Grand Final day without the booze.

Boston is high on its marathon and the runners. Patriots Day is the time to enjoy the embrace of the people of Boston.

If you have the good fortune to be a charity runner, you run at the tail of the field, feeling that embrace, the surges of love for the people – usually young – who are supporting local causes. Often the fundrunner commemorates one lost or saved or suffering the disease she runs for.

One young woman survived melanoma; another is in remission from her leukaemia. I have close relatives saved from those diseases. So, apparently, do hundreds in the crowd who roar their gratitude.

One, a spoonerist, runs with the words: Cuck Fancer. The crowd echo her sentiment.

Someone else came to the Marathon today with a different purpose than to celebrate. Someone whose malignity exceeds his knowledge: his bombs exploded near the finish around the four-hour mark; in an elite marathon like this, the ‘bulge’ – the greatest concentration of finishers – occurs 30 to 60 minutes earlier. The terrible toll might have been much heavier.

I plodded to the 22 mile mark, when a spectator offered me a slice of orange. His kindly young face looked troubled. “There have been explosions near the finish line. The marathon has been temporarily suspended.”

Naively I ran on. Perhaps they’d resume the event.

A mile further on, I was one of very few still running. Police and runners were mingling on the course, faces troubled. Hands held mobiles, sending text messages; local phone coverage was out. Some wept wrenchingly, their features distorted in grief or shock or anxiety for others ahead on the course. Many had relatives waiting near the Line.

My progress from mile 22 to 25 was slow. The crowds fell quiet. Overhead, helicopters gathered and clattered. Police vehicles racing everywhere, ambulances, sirens shrieking, tore between barriers as the crowds melted out of their path. Not for the first time, the matter of placing one foot in front of another felt slight. Here was immediate danger and evident bloodshed.

Police turned back those of us who were running into danger. I needed to contact family – in Boston, in New York, in Israel, in Australia (where I had bled my friends to donate to the Respite Centre). I had no phone. Strangers handed me theirs, refusing my offers to pay. I asked a teenager for directions to the Citgo sign, a local landmark, where my relatives would collect me; the teen insisted on escorting me the mile distance to make sure I found it.

As I waited, strangers seeing this stranded runner, stopped to offer help. One bloke, himself a (non-marathon) runner, wanted to give me his jacket so I wouldn’t get cold. Passers by touched me, or took my hand to shake. One stopped, gazed at me, shaking his head. He said, “I am sorry.”

Boston silenced, in shock, in grief. Its citizens reaching out to each other in spontaneous solidarity,as we see repeatedly in Israel following such atrocities. More than that, people felt implicated in a wrong, embarrassed: their guests had been hurt, frightened, frustrated. They turn their goodness upon me and I feel like crying.

A terrible beauty born.