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Friday, June 29, 2012

On Jay Rosen and wicked problems

These days, I do a lot more listening than talking.

   For years, in my petty kingdom of several lecture and tutorial rooms, I was the talker. Some even thought I was a guru, which isn't as much fun as it sounds. I wasn't.

   It's exactly five years since I gave all that away, when I took the sensible decision to retire from my university post and do other things. Luckily, I had more than two years as a free agent, before having this vast change of life with an illness I'm glad I never saw coming. I didn't really know those two years of filming and playing with graphic design were going to be the years of transition, but they were.

   When I say I'm listening, I mean reading. I now read all sorts of things I would never have allowed myself the time for in my former existence. It's not really a matter of choice, but there it is. I couldn't imagine, when I filmed that last musical, it would be the last time I'd ever touch the controls on the big video cam.

   So I read. Articles in the news, opinion pieces, blogs, novels and texts from Gutenberg; anything that takes my fancy. I'm a student again, but with the advantage of a few decades under my belt. I've had the training through academia to cope with long articles of up to 10,000 words at a sitting, if they hold my interest, though like most people I tend now to be looking for the shorter, zingier piece.

   I came across this article by Jay Rosen. It's nearly 3000 words, so it's a fair chunk. "What a wicked problem for a writer" it's called, tantalisingly. This guy sure knows how to write a teaser headline.

   It's a fascinating piece. Well, it is to me. I wondered if I could summarise enough of it to make sense, and maybe get you to read it.

   "If you don't know the solution, then you don't understand the problem."

   That seems too glib, but he's right. He talks of problems that are easy to understand ("tame" ones), even though the solution may be complex. They are not his subject here. What he's interested in are what he calls "wicked" problems, which are so complex to start with that there's really no solution. The world is full of them, and the way we go about dealing with them is up to putty.

   We call in the experts, but experts only see the problem through their window. Maybe they can solve part of the problem, but in doing so either ignore or don't grasp the critical nature of the rest of it. Thus we send in bureaucrats from Canberra to solve problems of Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory. They are very good at what they do, but the problem is too complex for any "solution" they come up with.

   We look for solutions to boats filled with people appearing on the northern Australian horizon. "Send out the Navy and sink a few," is one bright idea. "You'll stop 'em pretty damn quick then."

   Problem solved. Rubbish! As Kimberley Ramplin pointed out in various Twitter postings, and I have also written about, these few people are part of a gigantic global problem that has no easy solutions, let alone criminally insane ones. But I won't get bogged down with examples of what Rosen calls "wicked" problems like these.

Zen and the Art
   When Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his main character had suffered a total mental collapse, because of his failure to come to terms with Rosen's "wicked" problems. Written in 1974, Zen and the Art can still hold its ground as an enlightening philosophical essay, despite things I find irritating about the book now I return to it after thirty years. It's an example of another window on Rosen's subject, but Pirsig really only gets as far as defining the problem.

   Rosen attempts to grapple with it. The experts are useless in dealing with "wicked" problems, he says, because they only make things worse. So what's the alternative?

   We live in an age where thousands or more of people can put their view, all in the one place, or a limited number of places. It's possible to study these views, and seek out an approach based on consensus. (Stick with me now; here's where you need to go to the article to see where this is heading. I'm determined to finish this in fewer than 999 words.)

   He doesn't mean those forums so beloved of politicians where you get a hundred experts together, or even a hundred honest citizens. They're just token pow-wows designed to give the impression that somebody is doing something about something and nothing really gets done.

   No. He's talking about real consensus, or as wide a consensus as possible, because the input of millions of people linked closely to other millions of people means something dynamic. It's like some tribal customs where, on a "wicked" matter, the members of the tribe (OK, probably the elders, probably all male) sit down and thrash it out, even if it takes hours or days of debate and discussion until everyone accepts that a decision to be taken is the best one possible, imperfect though it may be.

   Only then can the tribe work together towards a solution. It's the "together" bit that matters, because only with an agreed base on collective knowledge and experience a "wicked" problem can be tackled. Leave the experts to sort out what Rosen calls the "tame" problems, like landing humans on Mars or using sharp instruments on your brain.

   I know. What I've said raises more questions than answers. Those with access to today's global "forums" are limited in vital ways, but vastly increased on what they were even a century ago. And consensus is alien to our form of "democracy".

   Of course, I don't have the solution. I guess, as Rosen says, I don't understand the problem. QED. So help me!

   998 words. I told you so.
.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fred Fernackerpan and Mr Kartoffel

Yesterday I had at least two pleasing experiences.

The first was seeing an anonymous response to my first ever blog story, posted in September 2010. I don't know who Anonymous is and I'm unlikely ever to find out, but he or she was referring to Clive James and Spike Milligan.

I said in response:
I also loved Milligan's work but found especially appealing his nonsense poems. One of them I taught my Grade 4 pupils in those old days when I was a schoolteacher. It was about Fred Fernackerpan and if I tried hard enough I could probably recite it myself.
Oh wait - it's online in a score of places so I'll steal it:
I am a mystery fellow,
I'm Fred Fernackerpan,
I wear one sock that's yellow
The other dipped in jam.
I walk about the countryside
I walk about the town,
Sometimes with my trousers up
And sometimes with them down;
And when they were up they were up
And when they were down they were down
And when they were only half way up
He was arrested.
Spike Milligan
The kids adored Spike's poem, but some of them got an even greater kick out of a second one. I thought it was another of his, but as is too frequent these days with my skewed memory, it turns out it was by a different poet altogether, one who wrote brilliant verses for children.

His name is James Reeves. He died in 1978, and his biographer said this of him:
It is a melancholy fact that, in the thirty years since his death, James Reeves has become an almost forgotten figure. 'I am a fanatic for poetry' he said on one occasion and much of his working life was spent in writing poetry, in editing volumes which eventually gave us a companionable clew through the labyrinth of English verse, and in seeking to improve teachers' understanding of its riches and thus to find ways outside the dead conventions of the classroom to inspire children to a lifelong love of the art. He was a widely beneficent fanatic.
James Reeves and his Collected Poems for Children: Brian Alderson
The world is always in debt to such poets. Here's the poem:
Mr Kartoffel
Mr Kartoffel's a whimsical man;
He drinks his beer from a watering can,
And for no good reason that I can see
He fills his pockets with china tea.
He parts his hair with a knife and fork
And takes his ducks on a Sunday walk. 
Says he, "If my wife and I should choose
To wear our stockings outside our shoes,
Plant tulip bulbs in the baby's pram
And eat tobacco instead of jam
And fill the bath with cauliflowers,
That's nobody's business at all but ours." 
Says Mrs. K., "I may choose to travel
With a sack of grass or a sack of gravel,
Or paint my toes, one black, one white,
Or sit on a bird's nest half the night -
But whatever I do that is rum or rare,
I rather think that is my affair.
So fill up your pockets with stamps and string,
And let us be ready for anything!" 
Says Mr. K. to his whimsical wife,
"How can we face the storms of life,
Unless we are ready for anything?
So if you've provided the stamps and the string,
Let us pump up the saddle and harness the horse
And fill him with carrots and custard and sauce,
Let us leap on him lightly and give him a shove
And it's over the sea and away, my love!"


❁     ❁     ❁     ❁     ❁
 
I also found today another set of splendid writing tips, this time by C S Lewis, who wrote the Narnia books. It's well worth going to where I found it but I'll try not to go off at a tangent here. It's in a collection of letters that famous people have written to children.
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.


Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.

With love
yours
C.S. Lewis
❁     ❁     ❁     ❁     ❁

So what was the other thing that pleased me today?

After the spine fracture thirty days ago, I'd groaned each time I had gone from lying down to sitting up. When I woke up after a sleep this afternoon, I went to the bathroom and washed my face. I dried my face. 

I came back into the bedroom and realised something had happened that was wonderfully new – so new and yet so ordinary that I didn't notice it.

I had no back pain. Well... not much, anyway.

If you've never been aware of the difference, you can't imagine just how good that unawareness feels when you suddenly become aware that it's no longer there.
.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ten rules for writing + one

I dislike titling articles "10 ways to...." "6 Things to avoid when...." "12 ideas that ...." 

   I know, it's the way the writer tells you there will be limits to the post, so it serves a useful purpose – but I just get tired of it, just as I do with some pretty typefaces. Sometimes there's just no other way to do it, but it's been done to death. It gets tedious. 

   So this is a sort of disclaimer in case you share my idiosyncrasy. It's also a prologue of sorts. Oh dear. Read on.

✽     ✽     ✽     ✽     ✽


The author Elmore Leonard wrote Ten Rules for Writing, details of which, among many more pieces of wonderful writing advice, are located here.

   They left me somewhat chastened, I must admit. Here they are, with my helpful additions.


1. Never open a story with the weather.

On that wintry night, with a pale moon passing through the storm clouds building in the west, I chose to begin my story with a weather analysis. It's my farm background. 


2. Avoid prologues.

Mine are frequent, in green italics. Yeah. Like up there at the top. Deal with it. 


3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

"But why would you never do that?" he responded. 


4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."

"But why not?" he said aggressively. 


5. Keep your exclamation points under control!

So damn holier-than-thou!!!! 


6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

Unless used together, with exclamation marks, viz: "Suddenly, all hell broke loose!!!"  

Holy rising hemlines, Batman....


7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

"Or toff-nosed Latin like viz.," he retorted tartly, sans enthusiasm. 


8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Jessie was both honest and beautiful, her ability to exploit her physical charms and intense charisma belying the depth of her intellect, which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi I bet no-one read this pearl of wisdom right here in the middle oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez or this other very nice piece of description ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy which none would see blah blah yada oyez oyez oyez ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy blah blah yadad oyez oyez oyse ossie ossie ossi oy oy oy did you notice that? Apparently not. 


9. Same for places and things.

I get the idea. See 8.


10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

 Gee – that leaves my blog very, very empty. Again, see 8.

.
Well, here's my Numero Eleven.

These are superb writing tips and I'm going to try adhering to them. Nevertheless, I think there's also merit in going with instinct and simply enjoying writing in one's own style, whether or not it breaks such sane rules designed to avoid superfluity and gluggery. 

That is exactly what I'm going to continue to do when I write my blog, so there. I'll do it my way, clichés and all; but with a new consciousness of principles which are bound to improve writing style enormously, as do these ten rules above.

Oh. I think this is an epilogue, but he didn't say I couldn't use one of those. Taa-daahhh!!!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The electric meeting of Carmen and Bella

Carmen wasn't exactly a city girl, but neither was she country. She was a town girl, let's say, staying with us a few days, on the 25 acre property we had just out of town.

   She was up bright and early the first morning. I was at the shed down from the house where we kept the poultry food and bales of hay for the couple of cattle we had.

   "Don't touch the fence," I said. "It's electrified. Just come through the gap between those two posts."

   The gap was narrow enough to allow us to squeeze through, but not the cows.

   She did so, gingerly.

   I went into the chookhouse nearby while Carmen stood near the door of the hayshed, looking out across the paddock.

   She attracted the scrutiny of Bella, the big black yearling calf. Half Angus, half Friesian, she was. Having taken after her Angus father in shape, she was meat on the hoof.

   What Bella lacked in brains, she made up for in brawn, but she did have the wit to notice that Carmen was close to the shed door where the hay was kept. On occasions she had seen me emerge from that door with a biscuit of lucerne hay, which she'd get down into the first of her stomachs at lightning speed.

   While I was in the chookhouse, Bella came up the gully and approached Carmen. Bella had hay on her mind, and she didn't care who came up with it as long as it was for her.

   I emerged from the henhouse as she stood there, staring at Carmen with an unblinking gaze.

    "Where's my hay?"

   Carmen was unused to cattle, especially ones behaving a bit aggro. She was rooted to the spot.

   Bella then tossed her head, as impatient cows do.

   "Don't you understand bovine lingo, stupid human? Get my hay!"

   Carmen had not the faintest idea what she was to get, and in fairness to her, one couldn't have expected her to, first day on the job and all. First ten minutes, if it came to that.

   Bella advanced a pace, snorted a little and shook her head again. Me? I just watched in silence. Bella wouldn't hurt a fly, I knew that. She was a big girl's blouse, really.

   Carmen was nervous. She retreated a step.

   Ah, Bella's tiny brain computed. I have asserted dominance. I want results, in the form of hay. Open that door and bring me hay. Now.

   She advanced several steps this time, and Carmen could feel and smell Bella's hot breath on her face from the metre or so that separated them.

   And Brer Fox (that's me), he lay low.

   Eyes fixed on Bella, Carmen retreated one more fateful step.

   There was an audible crack, and I, standing to the side, saw a blue spark flick from the fence to Carmen's rear. Not even new blue jeans can save you when that happens. Honestly, I never saw that part coming.

Illustration by Watto
   The effect was, of course, electric. Carmen gave a shriek like a banshee and bounded forward, hands spread wide, hair like Medusa, wild in the eye. They say some people wouldn't know if their arse was on fire. It must be said that Carmen, quite a smart girl, had no immediate idea what had happened, except that, for a brief moment, she felt that hers was indeed on fire, and every muscle in her body had been jolted by a fair-sized earthquake. Like 20 on the Richter scale, which I think only goes up to about 10.

   Bella for her part realised in a millisecond that she had lost the advantage of dominance. At the speed of static electricity or light (whichever comes first), this silent, meekly retreating human thing had switched persona into explosive and noisy attack mode. Bella turned tail and raced at a gallop down the gully below the dam, and up the hill on the other side to what she calculated was a safe distance; then turned and eyed Carmen with both reproach and grudging respect.

   Carmen just rubbed her bum and looked at me, not altogether without reproach, although, let the record show, unless I had shooed Bella off just a second before the zap, it would all have turned out the same anyway. She had learned a valuable lesson about cows – and electric fences. In that ten minutes, Carmen, you might say, had been very Bizet.

   See, that's what cattle are like, as a rule. They're basically bluff, and you have only to call it and they fold. But I make two exceptions. One is a cow protecting her calf. She'll stop at nothing if she thinks you are a danger to it, but that's true of just about all mothers on the planet really. No surprises there.

   The other is a Jersey bull. They're not big and they look fairly mild out in the paddock, but don't rile one up and be within striking distance of his horns, or you'll discover things about your internal organs that you never thought you'd see, nor would ever want to.



Thursday, June 21, 2012

Deeply buried treasure

.
The perfect Australian short story

I was 16 going 17 when I went to Teacher's College in 1964. One of the courses we took was English Literature. There, I came across one particular short story I had all but forgotten about in subsequent years.

What jogged something in my memory was the delicious fruit I've been raving about recently on the blog. Out of the blue, it reminded me of a mental image dredged up from that first year of Teacher's College. The image was of a row of these fruit on a window ledge. It came from a short story, but I couldn't recall whose, except that the author was a woman, and it was named after the tree which bore these fruit.

I couldn't remember how the story went, but I knew I had been both fascinated and perplexed by it. Suddenly, with the stirring of that flash of memory, I very much wanted to read it again. If you've forgotten everything about a story except for these sorts of impressions, then you didn't understand it well enough to appreciate it in the first place.

It became important for me to locate it, and re-read it with an extra half-century of experience under my belt. I wanted to know why I was both fascinated and bemused its message.

Google being everyone's friend, my search began there, and it wasn't long before I turned up the author's name and title of the volume of short stories it was in.

The entire volume was named after this one short story. Oh, I daresay that squillions of people are now going to tell me they know it well and have a copy on their shelves. Bully for you. I don't.

Next task was to locate a digital copy of the story. I don't have time to muck about, you see. When I want it these days, I want it now.

I was delighted when I discovered the complete volume online. It had an odd history of getting to that point, funding having been made available to an American university to have the volume scanned and digitised and placed in the public domain.

I downloaded a text version but was affronted on the author's behalf that the OCR text was disgraceful. The pages had simply been scanned into a very poor quality optical translator and dumped online. The text was full of errors in spelling. Some of it was unreadable. Obviously, the money didn't go far enough to do a decent job.

I went back to the site and downloaded a kindle version, hoping it was better. It wasn't. I was determined to put that right, and began the long and tedious process of correcting obvious errors. But at the same time, I located the one short story I was looking for, extracted it from the mess, and read it.

Fortunately, it was better scanned than many of the others, and I had little trouble doing the corrections on it, except for one just word. That frustrated me greatly, because the story was a gem; one that I could now appreciate as never before and couldn't possibly have hoped to understand at the age of 16. It was beautifully written, but its elegant symbolism was all but lost on me at that time. Now, I've seen that tree grow and bear fruit, and I have looked death in the eye, as the author did.

Now, I understand.

I went back to the University site and, on a whim or some intuition, downloaded the pdf version of the book. Why I should expect anything to be different in that one I've no idea, but I did want to know the one word in the story I couldn't be sure of.

Imagine my delight when I opened the pdf to find it was composed of the original page images, not the poorly-scanned digital text. I found the word I was looking for, and it surprised me. At last, I could create a perfect digital copy.

I want to share this short story with you. It's only five pages, and I'm certain it will resonate vividly with many, especially with women. So here are the original pages as they appeared when the volume first published. I believe the publication date was 1943.

If you think I've been coy about not mentioning either the author or the name of the story in this searchable text, or the original site on which a copy of the volume that offends me resides, there's a good reason.






Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I, torturer and murderer


I don't know quite how to tell you this. It seems that I stand, albeit shakily, accused of torture and worse.

Murder.

So far I haven't been picked up by the fuzz, but an open admission before that happens may be best. I want to put my side of the story to you, Judge Judy, and members of the Universal Jury.

We know that the villain Brian has been stirring while Avastin was delayed. To save the trouble of going all the way to Tamworth for an MRI, I had the brilliant idea of sticking my head on the scanner, turning the light up to max volume as it were, and doing a few quick brain scans. As you do… except that other people expose their buttocks on the office photocopier instead. Or used to, before these digital days of succumbing to the unwisdom of iPhone camera shots they deny sending to anyone later. Ho ho.

I declare that I did not sit butt-naked on the scanner, but the idea seems to have worked a treat. This image below is inside my brain. A strange apparition at the spot where Brian resides appeared on the screen.


I hereby tender this as Exhibit A. Just file that image away on the back burner, where many other mixed metaphors reside.

I have a Graduation Duck. Doesn't everyone? No? Well, in order to pump up my veins for the Avastin infusion, I squeeze my duck vigorously. It seems to work. No smirking, thank you.

I submit this image of my duck in pristine condition as Exhibit B.

On the night of 14 June 2012, I had a series of seizures, many located in the fingers of my right hand.

During such seizures, my hand always wants to claw up like talons, clenching and unclenching. Members of the Jury, it's tiring and it hurts. These, I contend, are mitigating circumstances even if you don't come up with the right verdict, but I know you will. I can see that you're not only the best-looking jury I've stood before – and I've been before many juries in my time – but wisdom and high intelligence shine from your sparkling eyes.

Yes, Your Highness, Judge Judy, I return now to the matter at hand.

"Get me the Graduation Duck," I commanded Tracey as my fingers flexed and fist clenched. Ordering people about is a rare privilege extended to those having focal seizures at the time; in this house, anyway, though it doesn't last long. My ordering anyone about, I mean.

"If I can get these fingers round the duck, they can squeeze and unsqueeze and not claw up any worse than they are now."

It was a theory. When you're having a seizure, practically anything novel seems like a good idea and takes your mind off the sensation that your knuckles are going to explode.

With commendable speed, Tracey brought Ducky.

"Put the duck in my hand when my fist opens," I said.

The attempt was not that successful. Oh, we got it in there all right – nothing wrong with the timing – but like a baby refusing a spoonful of mush, an apparently furious Brian refused to cooperate and kept spitting it out. Not that the mongrel ever has cooperated in any way before. The Grad Duck's head kept getting in the way no matter what.

The twisting, contorted fingers then responded to Brian's command – note: Brian's command – and suddenly, a cruel and unusual event took place.

It was reminiscent of an incident inspiring my nephew Scott's awe when he was about three years old, relating to the chook scheduled for the dinner table that evening. With a deft stroke of the axe, his father had just sent the hen to Jesus, leaving what was needed behind for the evening meal, plus the feathers. Scotto, in high excitement, raced inside to tell his mother:

"Mum! Chookie off his head! Quick. Come and look."

My sister was not keen. She had witnessed quite a few executions of a similar type on our farm when we were kids, and the thrill and novelty of seeing headless chooks running around had long worn off.

Judge Judy is getting fidgety again. OK.

You can see below the result of the evil Brian's handiwork. Ducky, I sadly report, was off his head as well, its having been ripped savagely from its tortured, contorted body by... well, it's true... my very own fingers.

WARNING: Graphic violence in image shown below.

Exhibit C.
I submit, Your Excellency, My Lady Judge Judy, Your Honour or whatever you want me to call you, and Members of the Jury, that this crime was not my fault, but that of an Unwelcome Stranger over whom or which the more-or-less sane rest of me has no control.

I further submit these more enhanced pictures of Brian for your consideration. I believe that the likeness to a certain other alleged bird-fancier to be no accident and, I have no doubt, supports my testimony, as long as you don't delve too deeply into rock legend's real history.

Exhibits D and E.

I rest my case.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Persimmons not to die before


I know, I promised I'd write about electric fence antics this weekend, and here it is Sunday and all, and I haven't. Yet. The vibe isn't quite right, so my apologies about your bitter disappointment. No. I'm going to write about the most beautiful and luscious of all fruit instead.

Our 2010 persimmons
Two years ago, round May, I was going downhill in terms of health at a slow and steady rate. I looked at the persimmon tree. It was only small, but heavily laden with large persimmons. It seemed very likely that these were the last ones I would ever have the opportunity to enjoy, so they had special significance for me.

In the past, around that time, I had cut whole branches of the tree together with their fruit, and hung them in the garage, where they ripened very slowly but unspoiled by the pecking birds or the occasional possum, as would happen if they ripened on the tree. I'd visit the garage now and again, take the ripe ones, and leave the rest to mature at their own rate, drawing on the last sap from the cut branch.

Tracey picked that entire 2010 crop, and brought them into the house so that they'd ripen more quickly in the warmth, as they do. Much quicker!

The only persimmons I know about are this variety, though there are others. The vital thing about these is that you can eat them only when they are perfectly ripe. Eat them earlier and the juice will react with the saliva in your mouth to dry it out and create a grainy, extremely unpleasant, bitter aftertaste.

I often wonder if people buying them from the shop to try them for the first time make that mistake, rather like the uninitiated do with unripe pawpaws, and get a very bad impression.

I am the only one in the house who eats persimmons. Tracey and Christian aren't keen, and hey, why should I encourage them? All the more of this subtle, elegant fruit for me. [Not quite true; I enjoy sharing them with friends who appreciate the persimmon and its vagaries.]

I revelled in their delicate flavour day by day until they were all gone. That's it, I thought. Carpe the Diem of the 2010 persimmon, and well carped at that.

But with Avastin treatment later that year, the decline in my health was suspended, and at some stage I realised that I might get to taste the 2011 crop as well.

Like those of mice, my plans gang well agley when there was no crop at all in 2011. I'm not sure why. Trees fail to crop for all sorts of reasons I won't go into here.

Disappointing. I didn't really expect to see out the whole of 2011, as the predicted health decline set in once more. Not that I was giving up or anything. Hell no. I was being realistic, going on symptoms and the stats.

So it was with delight that, with the summer flashing by at the insane rate it did, I saw another splendid crop of persimmons on the tree as the 2012 season of mists and mellow fruitfulness descended on the Tablelands. Again, Tracey picked the crop and brought it in.


If you are a persimmon virgin, look at these images. See that one at the bottom? Even though the stem is well withered, it's not yet ready. The yellower colour gives it away, and the fact that it looks too firm. But the one at the top now, which looks like a soggy, overripe tomato or a fiendish kid's water-bomb – that's the one. Go for it.

Pull out the leafy top – it should come out easily if it's ripe. Get a sharp knife and slice it in two starting at the gap that's left. Spoon out the contents carefully into a bowl. It could get a bit messy if you aren't gentle with it. Don't worry about the little blackish portion – it's only seeds, and you can eat them. They'll make you highly intelligent and irresistible to ... anyone to whom you want to be irresistible. It's a fact. And they're full of Vitamin C. Persimmons I mean. They're almost as effective as a flu shot, I'd say, but have the flu shot anyway, if you know what's good for you.

Now the good, slurpy bit. Gently turn the emptied hemisphere of skin inside out – over the bowl, if you're wise. The flavour of what's there is the best of all. Make sure no-one's watching [as you may not look your most elegant doing this], and gently suck out the last of the flesh and juice. Discard the skin. Repeat the whole operation with the other half. Do it all again with another one or two persimmons.

Put the bowl of persimmon contents in the fridge. I don't know how you feel about custard, but if you like it and have some on hand, put a tablespoon or so over the persimmon pulp when you're ready to enjoy your dessert. It complements it nicely.

I'm down to just about the last of the 2012 persimmons. This time, I will not look ahead to 2013, and wonder about its crop. That's not ummm... fruitful.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Einstein and the electric fence

7.05 AM. The first rays of the sun strike the curtain behind my computer's main screen as I tap this out with my good left hand. I'm grateful that I can now sit on this chair with minimal pain in the area of my sadly abused spine where the compression fracture occurred two weeks ago. So here goes.

Between 4 and 7 AM on most days now, my mind is capable of things it has never been before. It goes to places where knowledge has been stored in my unconscious or deep recesses of my conscious mind for decades. All these doors open without effort. 

Probably these things I mull over and link via odd connections make little sense to most people. More than likely they would see what my mind ranges over as an indication that senility is on its way.

But it's not that crazy. It all makes perfect sense (which is what every insane person says about their own point of view). I lie there on my back in the warm bed, almost disembodied, because there's no pain anywhere at all.  Just as long as I don't move, there will be no back-muscle spasms. No yet-unhealed muscle will clamp down on a nerve and cause that involuntary indrawing of breath that chronic back pain sufferers must experience almost all the time.

You people, you chronic pain victims, I sympathise with as never before. I really do. For a mere two weeks I've had a tiny taste of what you feel every day.

So I don't move a muscle as I lie there, and the reward is that state where my mind is freed perfectly from the physical trauma of the past fortnight.

Perhaps that's why I think about the truly free mind, which sets me musing over Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature and his attempt to grapple with the notion of reason and the senses. This in turn sends me reeling in Kant's direction, and how in his Critique of Pure Reason he grabbed Hume's treatise by the throat, adding a necessary new component that exposes the mortal flaws in the ideas of both; hamstrung by the problem the western philosophers rarely acknowledge. That's the failure of words by their very nature ever to give us exact meaning.

Yes, it's more complicated than that, I know. Every Philosophy 101 teacher is now on my back, and I know why. Hold your fire.

Einstein's theories based on a different concept of reasoning blasted both Hume and Kant out of the water, which makes me wonder why whole university courses are still run on them. I have my suspicions. From there I muse over the historical theories on the nature of the universe; how poor old Ptolemy and Aristotle, wrestling with their notions of a universe in which the earth was the centre, had to devise ingenious but awful ways of dealing with the problems this theory threw up. How Copernicus bless his soul rescued the earth from the clutches of geocentric models and stuck the Sun in the centre where it belonged – the centre of the solar system at least, but sadly for him, not the centre of the entire cosmos.

Galileo's marvellous telescope knocked on the head forever any thought by religious leaders that they could retain their geocentric theological hold over science, and Newton and Keplar did their massive bit by introducing the world to something everyone who fell out of a tree knew about but didn't understand – good old gravity. And with gravity seemingly sorted out well enough for the times, the world lived in comfortable ignorance for a while, in a neatly mechanical universe where two plus two always equalled four.

That was, until Einstein knocked it all for six by introducing this horrifyingly new world of quantum physics that was too complex even for him to get his head around – with all its head-scratching implications for us and the entire universe he was trying to cram into his poor old head.

And that led me on to curvy space in the universe warped by a zillion gravitational pulls, and the space beyond that; and going back the other way, the mysterious space with its even more mysterious properties of which molecules and atoms and everything that makes an atom seems to be composed; protons and neutrons and electrons all embedded in their own particular nothingness, right down to neutrinos and preons, quarks and quasars. And the Hadron Collider in its search for the 'God' particle, which clearly isn't a particle as we understand the term but a concept of a particle that will work mathematically better than anything so far.

If there does turn out to be an infinitesimally small solid ball-bearing down there, I'm going to look pretty silly, but what the hell, I don't care. It'll solve a lot of problems if they do, so I wouldn't mind the humiliation.

It seems to me it's pretty much space all the way down, not turtles. That solid cedar table is 99.999999999% or more seemingly empty space, as are you and I. We don't even know that fundamental quantum of pure matter that is us, if it exists.

Which led, as you'd expect, to positives and negatives and their yin-yang balance in the universe, or not as the case may be, reciprocating-piston car engines and orbital ones, and contemplating why that brilliant idea never made it to genuine development when logic dictates that there should not be one petrol or diesel engine in the world of the type we're stuck with now.

I think I know why, regardless of what Ralph Sarich might say.

And my mind flew to DC and AC electricity and how remarkable Alternate Current energy is compared with Direct Current, like they used on Titanic a hundred years ago – about seventy miles of wiring for it, I seem to recall. Can you imagine the North and South Poles of this earth switching their polarity fifty times a second? Positive and negative reversing at that rate?

Things would surely get interesting on the planet, if they weren't already.

So I thought then, as you'd naturally expect, about electric fences on farms, and that it's a good thing they aren't AC but only DC, like the static hit you get off your car in really dry weather – that blue cracking spark that makes you almost jump out of your skin. Or sometimes when Tracey and I kiss in the morning and we're both wearing rubber-soled Uggs, and The Kiss zaps us both.

In winter, we sometimes circle each other like sharks before we commit to The Kiss, but more often than not we forget about our electrostatic potential at that time of the morning. We embrace and kiss, and the kiss can be quite disconcerting, with all the romance of puckering up to one of those pointlessly stupid bug zappers. Try it. I double dare you.

Electric fences. Zap. Get zapped by one of them when your feet have good contact with the earth and you feel like you've been struck by lightning. Well, you have been, in a way. Same principle. You need to experience the jolt in order to really appreciate what I'm on about.

So, that was the way my mind was running over life, the universe and everything after 4 am today. The only omission relevant to this story is that I woke thinking about those electric fences, and wondering if city folk understood that though you can plug the generator for an electric fence into the AC circuit your house runs on, what it's turned into and zaps people and animals is a stream of electrons we call DC. Were it AC, you and any animal who strayed on to it would get fried, and that's not usually the object of the exercise.

Why is any of this is relevant? I'll tell you. I have two little stories to write over the weekend about personal electric fence incidents – entertaining ones I hope. Please join me if you haven't been put off too much by Kant, Sir Isaac Newton, and that other chap. What was his name? Ah, Einstein, now I remember. That tiny little scientist mathematician bloke on whose report card it's claimed his teacher wrote about him, "This boy will never amount to much."

He was always looking out the schoolroom window, living in a world of which his teacher had not the faintest idea. Had I been his teacher I probably would have written something very similar, only a bit more diplomatically in case his choleric mother turned up at my classroom door waving the report card with my comments on it in my face.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On waiting

I woke yesterday afternoon after sleeping. The bedroom was in the gloom of overcast midwinter, curtains drawn. 5 pm. The house was quiet. I turned on the bedlamp.

It was either no news or bad news. If no news, Tracey wouldn't have disturbed me. If bad news, she would also have waited till I got up. I imagined if it were good, she would have come in the moment she knew the light was on.

So, one or the other of the first two. I really expected us to hear something, so it didn't augur well. I lay there for some time.

For the first time in this entire affair, I felt very nervous.

It may seem strange, but this was somehow a comfort. I have always wondered about my abnormal state of mind about it all – a calmness that meant, once the tumour was diagnosed in December 2009, either that I had in some miraculous way accepted all that was to come, or that I was refusing to accept the reality staring me in the face all this time.

The latter is not a pleasant thought, because it means that it would hit sometime, very hard, and the whole edifice of apparent acceptance would come crashing down.

So I was nervous. I washed my face carefully, combed my hair and shaved, as if I would be greeting some stranger when I emerged from the bedroom.

I went out, and Tracey and Christian were in the lounge, talking quietly. The fire makes it beautifully warm in there. I take a deep breath and enter the lounge.

It's quick. "No news." It was after five o'clock, so there would be no news from Oncology.

I felt a rush of relief. Too much relief, as it meant that I didn't want to face what may come. I wanted an adjournment. But, I thought as I stood there, it meant also that if the news were bad, I really wouldn't need to know till we had to. I was calmed by the reassurance of knowing nothing.

A nice self-deception.

I suppose when you imagine facing your worst fear, there's a limit to how truly you can do that. Imagining facing a lion in the Coliseum may be terrifying, but nothing, absolutely nothing like the reality.

Still, as I write this, we don't know, but even before I get it up here on the blog the phone might ring. For some reason I badly want to post this before we know.

I feel calm again. Writing this has settled me. Whether it's acceptance or denial, I guess we'll really see this time, but it's certain at least that I feel less assured.

Maybe that's good. Who knows? Tata kim, we might say in Sanskrit. What use?


Friday, June 8, 2012

Avastin infusion postponed


The Avastin infusion scheduled for today has been postponed; not indefinitely we hope. The reason is here. See entry for Friday, 8 June 2012 3:00 PM.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The amazingly heroic heater


It was online. It was not pretty, but it was cheap, so I bought one. It came in a box the size you could have stowed an illegal immigrant in, but it was in pristine condition. Its sheer size was impressive.

I was amused, though faintly annoyed by the feeling that I'd been totally suckered, when I discovered that it had one tiny motor at the top pumping out the warmed air, from just one small portion of the generous vents at the top. The whole thing could have been redesigned into something the size of a grapefruit.

Never mind. I got what I paid for, and that wasn't much. It was placed in a very safe place in the bathroom far from any water. Turned on before a shower, it would slowly warm the room and disperse the humidity.

As it turned out, it had unexpected advantages relating to various portions of the body it could dry while I exercised at the same time, lifting feet alternately, all two of them, to dry the space betwixt the toes - and other bodily areas that aren't your business, but still need to be dry.

It was about five years ago when I got it. I can't complain. I've had my money's worth no matter what.

So it was last Thursday when I was standing towelling off and got caught by a savage seizure. The right leg, quickly paralysing after spasming, buckled. I, like a giant Redwood – oh all right then, like a small Bottle Tree – toppled to the right, scraped a paralysed right arm against the wall, and crashed to the tiled floor like ... well ... that little Baobab Tree. [Warning: not a flattering comparison with the human body.]

Simultaneously with my paralysed and bare right buttock striking the floor and my downward momentum cracking vertebrae like hazelnuts, my back struck the good old el cheapo convection heater. All I heard was a sound like the small cannon that went off in St James's Part on Remembrance Day in London, 1980. [St James's Part?? What an unfortunate typo. Even more unfortunate for St James. Let me correct that. "Park", not "Part".]

The heater, which I was now jammed up against, remained ON, pumping out its gentle stream of air away from my naked, wet, Adonis-like body. This was fortunate, as freezing tiles are amazingly cold against bare immovable buttocks. The front panel of the heater was reassuringly warm; not hot, thanks to the remarkable inefficiency of the original design.

With a lot of trouble, Tracey extracted me from this mess once I got a bit of power back to the right side of my body. But this isn't about me. This is about the heater.

I inspected it closely only last night, I'm afraid. Mostly everything's been about me since that event.

Only now do I realise what a grand sacrifice it made. The front was pushed in fairly badly where it had taken the lateral force of my back. That was obvious from the start.

But what wasn't obvious was the immense buckle the back panel had taken. Like those cars with crumple zones, it had absorbed much more of the sideways thrust of my fall than the front panel. Without its being there, bruising to my back would have been so severe against the unyielding surface behind the heater that any Avastin infusion would have been delayed god knows how long.

Even more significantly, had the heater not been in that exact place, the back of my head would have struck the front edge of a low solid pine shelf, and taken the full lateral shock of the fall. The entire damage to the heater shows what that was. I don't have to spell out the likely consequences of that with a brain tumour stuck in my head. Put it this way; I wouldn't have been writing this.

The heater prevented any head contact with any hard surface. I don't think my head even came into contact with the heater, but if so, its yielding front surface would only have acted as a cushion.

We turned the heater on again later, but its little heart had died. Obviously its noble final exertions as I rested against it were too much to bear. With no motor to push out the heated air, it would rapidly have seized up like a car engine with no oil. It had made the supreme sacrifice. RIP, heater.

So there you go. You never know who or what might turn out to be your saviour, do you?