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Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year's Tale

'The Little Match Girl' 
Hans Andersen

I hated, and yet was fascinated by this story when we read it as children in reading class, again and again as we did; a similar fascination, I guess, to that when we are passing by a fatal car accident. Its charm is its style; a combination of sorrow and sentimentality that never failed to stir me, though it always raised deep and negative responses that still remain as part of my being.

I was fascinated by the fact it could happen in a large city of great riches that such an event might occur, secure as we were in our tiny country village where even the poorest would never endure such things.  I daresay it did teach me a moral lesson, but perhaps not one the author intended. It taught me not that death was some sort of mystical and joyful escape for a child, but that it should never happen that way in the first place.

There are many millions of children in the world today in similar poverty-stricken circumstances. Spare a thought for them tonight, this New Year's Eve for 2012, and think of a way you can brighten some child's life; even just one.

The Little Match Girl

It was the last night of the year, New Year's Eve, and it was terribly cold! It was snowing, and soon it would be dark.

Through the cold and the darkness, a poor little girl wandered in the street, with bare feet and no scarf for her head. She had, indeed, worn slippers when she left home, but they were not much use. They were very big slippers that her mother had worn before her. They were so big that the little girl had lost them rushing to cross the street in between two carts.

One of the slippers was nowhere to be found, and the other was taken by a boy who intended to use it as a cradle when he had children of his own.

The little girl wandered along in her bare feet which were blue with cold. She was carrying several matches in her old apron and was holding one bundle in her hand. It had been a bad day for her; no one had bought any matches and she had not earned a single penny. She was very hungry and very cold, and looked very frail. Poor little girl!

Lights were glittering from all the windows and there was a wonderful smell of roasting meat along the whole street. All the little girl could think of was that it was New Year's Eve. She sat down and tried to warm herself in a corner between two houses. She grew colder and colder, but she did not dare to go home for she would have to take back all the matches, but not one penny. Her father would beat her and, besides, it would be cold at home as well. They only lived in a little hut and the wind blew right through it, even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her little hands were almost dead with cold. A lighted match would at least do some good! Maybe she would dare to take just one out of the bundle, strike it against the wall, and warm her fingers!

And so she took one. Whoosh! How it sparkled! How it burned! It was a gentle warm flame, just like a little candle when she held her hand around it. But what a strange light! It seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting in front of a huge iron stove with polished brass knobs and gleaming pots and pans. The fire was magnificent and gave out so much warmth! The child had just stretched her feet out to warm them, when the flame went out and the stove disappeared. She was sitting there with only a little burnt match-end in her hand.

The girl struck another match which burned and glowed, and where the light fell on the wall it became transparent like gauze. The child could see into a room where a table was covered with a white cloth and set with fine china. There was a roast goose, stuffed with prunes and apples, which filled the room with a delicious smell. What a surprise! Suddenly the goose jumped from its plate and rolled on the floor, straight to the poor girl, with the fork and knife still in its back.

Then the match went out and there was nothing to see but the thick, cold wall.

She struck a third match. Immediately she found herself sitting under a magnificent Christmas tree. It was even bigger and more beautifully decorated than the one she had seen through the glass doors at the rich merchant's house last Christmas. A thousand candles were burning on the green branches, and it seemed as if all the colourful figures were smiling at her. The little girl held up both hands and the match went out. The Christmas candles rose higher and higher, and she then realized they were just stars. One of them fell and made a long streak of fire in the sky.

“Someone is dying,” whispered the little girl, for her old grandmother, who was the only one who had ever been kind to her, but who had died, used to say to her: 'If you see a falling star it means that a soul is going up to heaven.'

She struck another match against the wall which made a great light. This time in the middle of that brightness she saw her grandmother. She looked so sweet and so shinning.

'Oh granny, take me with you,' cried the girl. 'When the match goes out, I know you won't be there any longer. You will disappear just like the iron stove, the roasted goose and the beautiful Christmas tree.'

She suddenly struck the rest of the bundle because she wanted to keep her grandmother, and the matches shone so gloriously that it was brighter than daylight. Never before had her grandmother seemed so tall and so beautiful. She took the little girl on her arms and they both flew away in radiant joy, higher and higher until there was no more cold, no more hunger and no more suffering. They were in Paradise.

In the cold, early morning, the little girl was still sitting in the corner between the two houses. Her cheeks were red and she had a smile on her lips…she was dead, frozen to death on New Year's Eve.

New Year's morning rose over her little body sitting there with the matches, one bundle almost completely burn up.

'She just wanted to keep herself warm!' someone said.

But no one knew what beautiful things she had seen, nor in what radiance she had entered the New Year with her old grandmother.

The story, though beautifully written, gives me no joy, nor ever did.  Starvation, disease and poverty were the handmaidens of death in nineteenth century Europe, and account for the sorrowful and frightening tales by Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. No wonder there were so many 'wicked stepmother' stories from the time. New wives taken by widowers would often have been barely older than their step-children. One hesitates to think of the likely abuse in many families.

It is no better in many parts of the world today. It doesn't need the comfort of Paradise to keep people under control; it needs the application of compassion and generosity in present lives.

I know, my addition to the story reads like some sort of secularist sermon. So be it.

A thought for the billion Little Match Girls and Boys out there all over the world on New Year's Eve for 2012. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Scared of the sacred silence, and red wine

I'm writing several things, but there's time for listening and time for silence. Here are two things that have just come to me on this.

  The first is about what might be called sacred space.

  'Sacred' has an amusing connotation for Tracey and me, because in reading essays on this topic for Religions 101, I'd find that students often reversed the keys when typing, and 'sacred' became 'scared'. In an essay intended to be serious, this could have some peculiar results in terms of meaning. We often joked about what was 'scared', especially when one of the cabernets were used to drink was 'Sacred Hill'.

  'Would you like a Scared Hill?' she might ask me.

  We often had a Scared Hill.

  But to be serious now.
Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world's information at our fingertips.
It's not always like this, even though many of us have lost the notion of sacred space for ourselves.
In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It's a principle that's been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. From my own experience, I've noticed how much faster I have to answer a question during a TV interview than I did 10, maybe even 5, years ago. It's as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer.

  In other words, the last line of this underlines the fact that sometimes we are scared of the sacred silences in life. Remember those uncomfortable pauses in conversations at a dinner party when, for no apparent reason, there is silence; an empty space that we desperately feel needs to be filled with words?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wasting time and Kahlil Gibran

I've always liked the days between Christmas and New Year. When I was at the university, these were regarded as the days off. The university was like a tomb.

  We were granted four weeks annual leave. The sad truth is that I, like many academics, never took four weeks off in any year. We were so busy teaching and filling in forms and assessing essays and theses for the remainder of the year that four whole weeks in a row were beyond the pale as time off. That was research and writing time beyond what we could squeeze in during term. Publish or perish became the imperative - and, it seems looking at the way universities are going, so it remains.

  That's another story.

  Anyway, at the end of December, I always tried to take that little break away completely from professional matters, but the compulsion to work was strong. Even worse was the feeling of guilt when I wasn't working at an academic task. Many will recognise that.  It's an obsession; an addiction - and it can wreck your life.

  Once, when I was a young schoolteacher, my mother and youngest sister and I went on holidays to Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast. It was and still is a glorious spot. The house we rented was just across from the beach itself.

  It was, in fact, the time when a rather sad romantic interlude occurred that I wrote about some time ago.

  I felt a compulsion to be on the beach at all times, though late teen hormones helped generate that. But one afternoon, as I looked out on that idyllic beach, gentle breeze blowing so that the ocean became choppy, I rebelled.

  Right then, that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to lie on the bed and read my book, and listen to Linda Ronstadt singing Different Drum.

  I wanted to 'waste time'. So I did. And I enjoyed it immensely.

  'Wasting time' to me meant doing exactly what I felt like, no matter what it was. It didn't necessarily mean doing sweet bugger-all, though that would have been all right too.

  It's a pity I didn't take enough notice of that precept and apply it to more of my professional life in subsequent years, even though I chose to work because  I enjoyed that too. But 'wasting time' is something, looking back, I ought to have done more of.

  This morning I said to my net-friends:
I always think the days between Christmas and New Year are the best if you're on holidays. Let the old year mellow out. Waste time.
  I had to add, 'if you're on holidays' because I know not everyone can be.

  An old friend (and I mean that in the nicest way, Grant Winkler) responded: 
"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou...." Well, not exactly thee, Denis…
  I knew what he meant. He's entitled to quote Kahlil Gibran at me in the circumstances. It was pretty much what Kahlil was on about.

  Debbie Green wrote back:
Indeed Denis. We sometimes feel our days must be filled with purpose and intent, when sitting still is what is best for us and the universe.
  I responded:
If you've lost the capacity to enjoy 'wasting' time (meaning doing just what you want), you've lost the art of living.
  Another friend, a lawyer (and we know all too well that lawyers generally spend way too much time in their offices) added:
Indeed. It's very lovely to have 'shaggy dog time'. It seems to me we had more of this time in the past, but I may be dreaming.
  I don't think she was dreaming. I think we did make more time in the past for 'doing nothing', even if, for too many of us, it was much less time than it should have been.

  Don't make that mistake. 'Shaggy dog time' can turn out to be the most important time in your whole life. If you have the next few days free, then do what you want, even if it's sleeping in a darkened room half the day - or ... well... hang-gliding. Maybe.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A duckling, poddy calves, and freedom 2

pt 1 | pt 2 <<you are here

A poddy calf is called that because of a sad thing that befalls them a few days after birth.

  It may not be the same these days, and I hope it isn't, but this is how it used to work. A few days after birth, they were taken away from their mothers to join other poddy calves in a large pen.

  That happens because you want milk in your tea and on your cornflakes, or cream on your dessert, and cow's milk is needed if you cook, eat real butter or feed your babies. Dairy farmers have to sell their milk to keep their farms producing what you want.

Jersey calves - like ours
  There was not enough time in a dairy farmer's day for sentiment in this. Separating cows and calves was the most efficient way to have milk for you and cash coming in. Family dairy farms in the 1950s were on a knife-edge financially, so that how it was. Life or death in these matters, with little romance.

  The poddy calves were fed on a portion of the milk that could be spared. Often it was skim milk produced after going through the cream separator, so its food value was much reduced. Other things were added to the calves' rations to give what they drank a bit of bulk and protein.

  You've seen undernourished kids in places where food is scarce. Often they have big pod-shaped bellies and are skinny as a rake otherwise.

  So it was, all too often, with poddy calves. That's where the word comes from, though these days I expect they are treated differently and are healthier, because they get the right supplements that many farmers couldn't afford just after World War 2. The name 'poddy' for hand-reared calves has stuck.

  Long intro, sorry, but you need to understand why, in those days at least, poddies were kept in small enclosures for quite a few weeks before they could be let out and graze and fend for themselves. They don't start eating grass straight away any more than human babies start on solid foods.

  The point here is that they have no concept of a world beyond their little enclosure from the moment they're born until the first time they are let out into an open paddock. I can't help thinking that's rather like how Australians are if they never leave the incredible safety and security of this country.

  When they're old enough, they are released, often one by one. It is then that a rather delightful thing happens. I don't think I've ever seen it not happen for any poddy calf, though I've witnessed these first moments of freedom countless times.

  The gate is opened when the calf is close to it. Sometimes it has to be pushed out into the open. Quite often it is reluctant to go, because nothing seems to compute for it. 

  There are no barriers in front. No matter where it went in the past, there was always a solid fence. This could be dangerous. The unknown often feels that way....

  It stands there motionless, blinking like an idiot, as if it had never been in sunlight. Finally, sniffing the grass suspiciously, it takes a few tentative steps forward as if walking on ice. The outside grass probably smells sweet after the little patches of kikuyu that might have survived in the enclosure only because they are so unattractive.  Like most creatures, bovines can't abide the smell on the grass of what's on it that's come from their own stomach and bladder.

  Then for another few moments, maybe longer, they stare at the vast world ahead. Some switch turns on in their heads, and they start to run.

  It's the funniest thing, or we as kids used to think so. It's something you never forget. They'd race down the hill with every ounce of strength and speed they possessed, and pelt round the corner of the vegetable garden, up to the cattle yard gate - a frantic race with nothing, going nowhere really. Breathing heavily, they'd stop, as this was the first time in their lives they'd ever really stretched out, and what a feeling it must have been.

  In a few moments, they'd start again, only this time it could last for five minutes or so, racing madly and joyously in wide circles, then straight up and down the hill, tails high in the air, sucking air in through their mouths.

  Then it would be all over as the novelty of freedom gave way to curiosity. They'd start to explore this extraordinary new world; Narnia in summer, I guess, once out of the wardrobe.

  Their world would never be the same again. They would return to the pen only with some reluctance, if they went back at all. Usually they were kept in at night for their own safety, not from dingoes but the occasional danger of feral and domestic dogs that might run amok.

  I was going to use this story and the one about the little wild duck we reared in captivity as metaphors for how humanity might learn from these instinctive urges for freedom, as I don't believe we are all that far from our animal natures driven by the genes we share with our fellow creatures.

  Physically, mentally, nothing has changed, except maybe for the worse. "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they."

  Rousseau said all this so much better than I ever could, and it's truer now than ever. The social contract amongst humans as Rousseau explored it over two centuries ago has been sadly abused in my lifetime, and has spawned all the lunges for freedom we now see all over the world. All of these have been met with the naked display of repressive power and violence.

  But I think I won't go into that after all. Either you get it or you don't.

  The first tastes of freedom for our wild duck and the poddy calves really are about power, and on the human level, whether you have it or not over your own life. 

   I've learned, in the past two years especially, that this is what life is all about, and why people may be willing to die in search of it.

pt 1 | pt 2 <<you are here

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A duckling, poddy calves, and freedom 1

pt 1 <<you are here | pt 2

When I woke this morning, my brain was on fire.

  I don't mean in a bad way; I meant that ideas were flowing through, separate thoughts and memories that get joined in the way a flame connects separate pieces of wood burning in the glass-fronted heater.

  One memory was about a baby wild duck that we found on the dam when the girls were little. It was small enough to be rescued without protest.

  One of its feet was malformed - not a lot, but a couple of toes were missing and the webbing incomplete. Perhaps the mother and brood had abandoned it on that account, or it may have been the sole survivor of a fox attack; its inability to keep up saving its life.

  We took it up to the house and put it in a spare cage I had built for rearing chickens.

  I think we raised it on normal chicken feed. It's a bit hazy now, but I moved the cage across the grass daily so it was able to forage, digging out little bits for itself of grass, insects... whatever its instinct told it was food for ducklings.  Maybe the girls found treats for it now and again.

  I always think of it as female by the colouring, but I can't be sure. I'm not a duck-sexer and it didn't matter anyway. The girls fussed over her and she didn't mind, but she always had a natural wildness about her.

  In a few weeks, her body grew to maturity. She always walked with a limp, but it didn't bother her much. Through the mesh clipped over the cage, she started looking upwards, exercising her wings. For a day or two, this scouring of the sky, the restlessness and wing-stretching went on.

  We had never intended to keep her as a pet, so one morning, as the beating of wings started, I took the wire netting off the top of the cage, and we watched.

  She stretched her legs and stood tall for a moment on the one good foot and the crumpled one, and flapped her wings strongly. She searched upwards as if there was some target in the blue. Then, with not the least hesitation, she sped skyward at a steep angle, a hundred metres high above us, and circled - a complete circle half a kilometre wide.

  There was no faltering as she headed off unerringly towards the east. She was free.

  I'll tell you the other freedom story tomorrow, and connect the two. But to do that, I need to go backwards in time another thirty years.

pt 1 <<you are here | pt 2

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Inside a focal seizure

My last seizure was on 22 November - nearly a month ago - until the early hours of the morning today, that is. 

  I had an inkling last night it was going to happen. You know how the black ants run all over the place before a storm, or furiously start to build up their nests? That's how my brain felt then, as if it were trying simultaneously to prepare for an event and run away from it. 

  There's no running away. It's not till tomorrow that I have a life-extending hit of Avastin, but if the infusion would have prevented the seizure - and there's no guarantee it would - then it's a day or so too late.

  It was a vivid one, happening at 3.45 am. I always have to turn on the lamp and note the starting time, to see how long it goes for. I do that in case we need to call an ambulance.

  A lot more people read this blog these days and won't understand what a focal seizure really is or does, but the important thing for the moment is that I am fully conscious every moment of it - so it's no trouble for me to remember and describe.

  This one was about 8 on my Richter seizure scale, and lasted about 3-4 minutes. It jolted me awake when I became aware that the fingers on the right hand were spasming, opening and shutting powerfully like a claw. It went through the standard sequence which I won't describe again here; up through the arm, down the right side, and into the leg and foot. 

  As usual, the problem is like that of being in an earthquake - not knowing how strong it's going to get, what parts of the body it will affect, how long it will last, and how many aftershocks there will be.

  It came to an end the way a thug deals with you - a last violent kick or two and then he disappears into the night, leaving you lying there barely able to move a muscle, but glad it's over. Gradually the affected parts of the body get a level of function back. You've survived the onslaught.

  Or I have, yet again, for the nth time. I lost count long ago. 

  I went to the bathroom, knowing that it may not be over. I've had aftershocks before. Walking was difficult and I had to be careful. I felt grateful that yet again there are organs in my body unaffected by the seizures.

  A seizure leaves me with a feeling of torpor or exhaustion, but I know my brain is racing. After a month where I gradually feed a tiny germ of false hope by doing everything in order to be 'normal', I'm reminded once again what 'normal' really means for me. All the exercising, physical and mental, can't change that.

  Still, I accept what can't be changed, and looked for a comfortable sleeping position.

  I lay on the right side, its arm position rearranged by the left, and drifted into an uneasy slumber. A snake as thick as my leg wound its way through the undergrowth somewhere on the forest floor of my brain. I couldn't see either its head or its tail. It changed colour like a chameleon as it passed along, through the fallen branches and dead leaves and the dirt.

  Up there, my consciousness was in two halves. I felt as if one half were trying to invade the other. My right side was warm, tingling and slightly sweaty. The palm of the hand felt as if it had been sitting on a hotplate that was cooling down. The little finger was still pinging - a sign that it may not be over for the night.

  The forest-floor dirt became smooth, and the snake was invisible. The centre of the floor began to collapse inward, the hole increasing in size as the grains of earth disappeared into it. 

  I gathered strength and turned to the left side, and slept.

  It's another day, and sleep has reconnected the vital elements. It's knocked the stuffing out of me a bit and the nausea hasn't yet passed, and I may get another seizure before tomorrow if the past is any guide. Often it isn't.

  But I'm still here, and it's five days till Christmas, and twelve till the New Year, 2012.

[The 'illustrations'? I made them this morning. Because I felt like it, that's why!]

Saturday, December 17, 2011

RIP Hitch. Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens: sketch based on photo
A few days ago I saw a photo of Christopher Hitchens and wrote on Twitter

A man facing death who now has death in his face. 

  There's a time when the awareness that they are about to die shows vividly in a person's face, and though I had seen several recent pictures of him, it wasn't hard to tell from this one that it would only be days.

  Five, to be exact. He died yesterday.

  Knowing that there would be a vast outpouring of all sorts of reactions to his death amongst my friends and acquaintances on Twitter, I didn't want to be part of the immediate controversy about a man who was both lionised and bitterly resented. One friend, Kimberley Ramplin, simply wrote:

RIP Hitch

  In response to her public comment, I wrote back, publicly:

"RIP Hitch." Perfect. Respect.

  I then closed Twitter for the night.

  Overnight I received a private message in reply to this comment from someone who said: "Why did you say that? Hitchens was far from perfect!"

  Only then I realised how easily words get misinterpreted, especially cryptic ones. What I mean by my comment was not that Hitchens was perfect, but that Kimbo's comment was the perfect one in the circumstances. Say no more, give him time to rest in peace for a little while, and show respect for the dead - especially a man so influential in the interminable philosophical debate about religion as Christopher Hitchens.

  That's all I meant. She and most of my friends would have got it immediately, but not everyone. It drove home to me once again what I have said so many times over my lifetime: 

  "Words are good servants but bad masters."

  Hitchens was an atheist. There are many things about religion that he attacked, and for that he provoked controversy. He did so because he had a prodigious mind and was a master of words, either written or in public debate. This combination made him very persuasive and much feared by his opponents. 

  His greatest enemies were the Christian religious right, not those of the sensible Christian middle ground, or from other religions. Muslims generally seem to have kept a dignified silence in his religious debates, although they have had more reason to be offended by his views on politics and religion than unflinching dogmatists at the blindly ignorant end of the spectrum of Christianity. 

  I should make clear at this point that on many matters of religion, I agree with the essential points that Hitchens always made about them and those who manipulate religion for their own purposes, but this isn't the place for that discussion. I'll simply say that I respect absolutely the right of thinking people to their own religious and philosophical views. Finite minds do have a bit of difficulty grasping the infinite, and it is presumptuous for humans to think that if finite minds can't grasp something, then it can't exist.

  Hitchens didn't have any problems with that particular point, though his atheism was misunderstood, often willfully. He ignored that willful ignorance, knowing that debate with such people is pointless.

  He drove me crazy when two colleagues and I were running a course on Islamic politics for more than a decade. He had very controversial views on this matter, including support for the Bush insanity in Iraq. (There's some irony in the fact that the United States had, almost on the day of Hitchens' death, extracted themselves from Iraq as officially active military participants.)

  We included some of his most persuasive articles on this topic in our teaching material in the course on Middle-Eastern politics; sensible and appropriate academic practice when balanced by opposing views expressed through the incisive writings of the venerable Beirut-based journalist, Robert Fisk.

  When I say he drove me crazy, I really mean the contrast between Hitchens and Fisk drove the students crazy, because they were presented with very persuasive views from each side of the political fence, and some found this hard to handle. Sorting them out year after year in tutorial discussions and essays made an enormous amount of work for us. 

  That was our job, of course. It wasn't our place to convince students who was right and who was wrong; it was to show them how very different conclusions can be arrived at by fine minds - and how prejudices on all our sides were part of the equation.

  Hitchens is going to be remembered more for his views on religion than on politics, because those are the ones that won't be laid to rest. When he died yesterday I was expecting the battery of jokes about what would happen when Hitch the unflinching atheist found himself at the gates of Heaven or Hell. He probably would have been mildly amused by them. 

  It may seem odd, but I didn't expect these jokes to come quite so soon and with such lack of respect for death; his death in particular, because lack of respect for such a potent mind as Hitchens' is lack of understanding of his contribution to rational thought and debate at the highest level. 

  I should have known better. It always happens. Of course, I am pretty sensitive to such matters at the moment. We are nearly the same age and we share a common fate from the same disease. He did what I have attempted to do for two years now - to demystify death without clinging too much to the mysterious. 

  I hope his was made as peaceful as it could be.

  In one of his final articles, he destroyed the proposition by Neitzsche: “Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger.” He knew that that his cancer was indeed going to kill him, and that there was nothing in his treatment that would strengthen him.

  But the attitude to that condition can be strengthening. His age, and his pathway through the disease has many parallels with mine, including what he came to recognise as his own change of views about the final stages.

  It's not a case of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle...." That's bravado from the young Dylan Thomas who faced an early death but lived only half a life. He simply wasn't ready for death and was full of rage. Hitch wasn't.

  Hitchens came to understand that this was not the way. There's a time to be gentle, and he was aware of it at the end.

  If you read nothing more of his, read that article.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In praise of cow dung

So goes a little poem from ancient Indian Sanskrit literature from the 3rd Century CE.
  It gently mocks the role of the cow in Hindu religious tradition. And yet, the Indians also know that it fulfills functions in Hindu society that often aren't given a thought in the west.
  'Scrawny old bag of bones,' said one of the tour party. 'The best thing would be if someone shot the lot of them. They're useless and cause a lot of trouble. Everyone would be better off.'
  Would they now?
  Take the obvious things for a traditional village. They provide milk - or some of them do. A family that owns a cow has a little food or income while the cow's lactating. They produce a calf every year for a while and that's worth money. In the end there's a whole industry around their death, not the least of which concerns leather and everything derived from it.
  But they're not always productive in this way. For one thing, half of village cattle born are male. They can, it's true, be beasts of burden and pull ploughs, but what of the 'temple-courtyard' oxen that don't do any work? They take every opportunity to thieve produce where they can - food that humans eat. They don't work for their living.
  Or so it seems. Yet, no matter how old they are, what gender, how inconvenient they can be getting in the way of traffic and people, they produce one wonderful product that's enormously beneficial.
  Dung. There ought to be hymns in Sanskrit in praise of cow dung. Perhaps there are.
  It's untrue that cows constantly compete with humans for food, unless the humans are plain careless and leave the garden gate open. Of course, the cow will take what it can get in that case, but that doesn't happen too often. The fruit and vegetables are too valuable a resource for that to be allowed.
  The truth is that cows do a great job eating what humans won't - grass, grain stubble, banana and mango skins, paper, corn husks, vegetable peelings, half rotten or spoiled fruit. As to grass, there's no need for motor mowers or wasted labour on such matters.
  All of this produces considerable quantities of dung. People have funny ideas about it. It's just vegetable matter that's gone through quite a complicated processing. It doesn't smell bad. And its uses are manifold.
  It can be used as garden fertiliser, of course, but in India it probably won't get put on the garden till it's been used for other things.
Cow dung cakes ready for use
  There are castes that deal with cow dung. Their job is to collect it fresh and bring it to their area of the village. There it is patted by hand into regular sized cakes of uniform consistency, and sun-dried. They make a living selling these disc-like cowpats. It's not a great living, but the raw materials are always available and the market is assured.
  In this form, the dung cakes have many uses. They are crushed and mixed with other things to make a daub plaster for the walls of small houses or shanties.
  In the dry season, the floors of the village houses become dusty. Cow dung cakes are crumbled and sprinkled on the earthen floor. This lays the dust and provides a thin clean soft cushion for the feet. It doesn't smell and is virtually sterile.
  After some time, it can be scraped up, together with the dusty soil underneath it, and put on the garden as compost. A thin layer of fine dirt covered by a dry dung layer makes a new throwaway carpet.
  But there's one other use for the dung cakes that makes them very valuable - as fuel. Wood is scarce and kerosene very expensive. Fires running on either need careful tending.
  But a fire burning cow dung yields a slow, steady, uniform heat that is perfect for cooking curries. Women can leave them burning and go out to work. The dung cakes have the qualities of a good cigar; they keep on going for hours and need little maintenance. The smoke from a well-set fire is little but can help to keep unwanted insects like mosquitoes away.
  In fact, soap is made from high quality cowdung is highly prized.
  So, cow dung is integral to traditional village life, both socially and economically. This means that the 'useless' cow's demise would create a real cost in many different ways. Sadly, it is more and more scorned with the rapid modernisation India is undergoing, but India has always been an evolutionary society rather than revolutionary, so it could take quite a while. Village life is slow to change, which can be both a boon and a bane.
  Sometimes we forget that 'useless' things can have a vital role in maintaining fragile balances that make the difference for many between a tolerable life and severe hardship.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The mystery parcel from Lovecorner


  Our bell near the door is a veritable triumph in mellifluous tintinnabulation, especially as Christmas approaches. The postman was at the door with a parcel.

  The postman is a frequent visitor to our place, what with eBay and all. Usually he is very bright and breezy. This time he gave Tracey the electronic signing book with a deadpan face.

  It was a smallish, almost square box heavily wrapped in strong brown paper. 'Sealed in plain wrapper' as is often said. The address said it came from Malaysia, from a business named "Lovecorner."

  'Wow!' I thought, with Christmas coming. 'What do we have here?'

  How could one not be excited at the prospect? Along with it came a quaint little note:

  If they believe we like it before even opening the package, this is very promising. If they sent it from the lovingest corner of Lovecorner, then all sorts of intriguing possibilities abounded.

  I would love to have had time to consider them, but....

  'Don't get too excited!' said Tracey with studied insouciance.

  'What's in the package?'

  'Tupperware. Little Tupperware containers.'

  I had no more 'querries.' Tupperware had been sent with love. What more could one want?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chutney, decisions, and writing

'Do you want the spiced quince chutney on this, or the mango chutney?'

  It's just a corned beef sandwich, but as happens more and more frequently these days, I take a very long time to make decisions.

  It's a hard choice, you see. The quince chutney is home-made, milder and more flavoursome. The mango is shop-bought, sharper and might suit the sandwich better.

  Might. Maybe. I don't know. But a decision has to be made. Half one and half the other? Don't be a chump. Then I'd have to decide which should be eaten first. Alternate bites?

  Get real. Come on!

  'The mango.'

  It's a brave decision, powered mainly by the thought that mango was what we had as kids, only then it was home-made; brewed by Mum, or Elvie, or any one of my aunts - my father's sisters. That's a choice of seven. It wasn't Indian mango chutney, after decades of adaptation for the Australian bush palate and what was available to put into the boiler with the green mangoes.

  I'm not even sure my Indian friends would recognise it as chatni, because the varieties in India are endless, designed for particular curries. Karis. Kari is the Tamil word.

  So many Indian words the British have appropriated from India. Verandah. Pyjamas. Bungalow. Bangle. Cushy - a nice easy job. Pundit. Dulally. I love that word! It means bonkers, like Mad Dogs and Englishmen went when they went out in the midday sun at the village of Deolali or nearly anywhere else less than 5000 feet above sea level in India in the monsoon season.

  Scores of these words have enriched English, just as Indian food preparation has enhanced and diversified western cuisine. The nicer side of cultural imperialism!

  Anyway, Tracey asked that question concerning my condiment preferences just as I was about to write about something else, but you see what's happened to my mind these days. Don't click on this or it will happen to yours. You'll go dulally.

  What I was writing about was something triggered by something linked to something else **sigh!** that a dear friend alerted me to - a book that I am going to read; one of the very few of the genre I'll consent to reading. The author is a medical doctor, Delhi born but originally from a Bengali family by the look of that name. (Hence the tenuous connection with chutney, you see!) Let's not get distracted by the contents of the book just yet.

  Forgive me, Guardian newspaper, for taking a generous quote from your excellent pages. Here's the full article: do read it. What he said here was about the process of writing, not about his subject matter. He said this:
  How did the book get written? When I first began to write the book, I suffered from the fallacy, as many first-time authors do, that the trick to good writing is good equipment.

  Good writers must use good instruments, I thought. Great surgeons, I imagined, must operate with the surgical equivalent of Wusthof knives. Great cardiologists probably use high-end stethoscopes. So to be a great writer, I reasoned, I must have a great writing room. I emptied a study on the top floor of our house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and bought a beautiful high-backed chair, a minimalist desk and a fountain pen that handled like a German revolver.

  Then I sat in the room every evening staring at the wall, writing nothing. Three weeks went by, and not a single worthwhile paragraph oozed out. I moved myself to the living room couch, and spent the day staring into the garden. Nothing. The dining room table, with the books spread out around me. Nothing.

  I went to sleep one evening, having produced another day of nothing. I woke up at about three in the morning, lying in bed, with my pillow propped up, and wrote four pages.

  The trick to my writing, it turned out, was doing so exclusively in bed. The minute I even dared to discipline myself and write at the desk, I produced mounds of nonsense. Yet, sitting in bed, I wrote easily, effortlessly, fluidly. I became the master of perfect indiscipline. If I set myself fixed hours, or forced myself to write a certain number of words, I produced complete junk.

  I once set myself a deadline: half a chapter a week, 20 minutes a day. The thought froze me instantly, like literary botox. I returned to my non-schedule: sleeping, writing 20 minutes, and then back to sleep. Breakfast in bed, with juice congealing on the sill: pages and pages began to pour out again.
  This is a mirror, albeit an imperfect one, of my experience. Well, it took me back to what I'd written here, a four-minute rant which I just re-read and surprises me that I'd forgotten so much about. For those writers with writer's block, to me the best remedy is still pen and paper by the bed, and scribble enough keywords on the page to revive the stream a bit when you do make it to the keyboard.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The first lecture: where's Asia?

pt 1 | pt 2 <<you are here

After admitting I was no oracle on Asian history, the next thing I'd do in the first lecture was to hand out a blank map of Asia, pretty much like this.

  This usually provoked some consternation. Tests already? 

  'You don't have to write your name on this,' I said, 'but I want you to do something.  Maybe it's a good idea to avoid looking at what the person next to you is doing. Just do this on your own.'

  If you look on this map, it has political boundaries drawn on it. Sometimes I'd hand out ones like this, but at other times, I kept it entirely blank, except for the Asian coastlines.

  'Just write in the names of these places, as near as possible to the centre of the country, or with the tip of an arrowhead in the country. There's only twelve I'm asking for. If you're not sure, take a guess.'
  South Korea
  Sri Lanka
  These were the names and I'd call them out in that order. 

  'Put your name on the page if you feel like it.' (That was always an interesting test of character!) I'd collect them straight away.

  Now, I don't know how good at geography you were by the time you'd finished high school, but my knowledge wasn't that great. I confess that I only really got a good handle on where some countries were in relation to others when I travelled to them.

  Still, some of the results of this little test were quite shocking, even to me. Some students could not place India on a map of Asia. I couldn't imagine anyone not recognising that distinctive triangle. Some wrote the name 'China' where Indo-China is. Vietnam appeared on some maps as the island of Borneo. The hint of a little portion of Australia was no help to a few, who in despair simply left it out.

  There was, though, one interesting thing that always surprised me a little. Nearly every person, no matter how wrong they got other places, including India and China, identified Japan correctly. Somehow it's a very distinctive shape with its own identity in people's minds, even in those whose knowledge of world geography is otherwise pathetic.

  A test like this is a brutal realisation of what a teacher of history can be up against. If Vietnam is the island of Borneo, this person can know nothing of the history of the Vietnam war... the Ho Chi Minh trail... Cambodia... war with China....

  Nor can they hope to understand the vital importance geography has in shaping history. Almost by itself, geography explains the historical xenophobia of the Chinese and the evolutionary character of Indian history... the qualities of the Chinese soldier compared with the ideals of the samurai.... Why India and China developed so separately from each other. How and why the profound influence of Chinese culture spread to Japan via Korea over a thousand years or more.

  So much. How could they understand modern history? The state of Iraq, the nature of Iranian politics, the creation of Bangladesh? Afghanistan? Where was Australia in all this?

  I had a lot of work ahead of me. But there were ways to overcome this terrible ignorance, starting with some clay in a tray and a jug of water.

✵          ✵          ✵          ✵

  There was one person's test I'll never forget. This was one of the rare times I'd handed out a completely blank map with no political boundaries. 

  She had placed her paper on the desk near the door and walked out early. 

  I looked at her effort. 

  She'd attempted to write countries' names in the ocean area. She had no idea what was land and what was sea. 

  I never saw her again.

pt 1 | pt 2 <<you are here

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's been two years

People who know me well enough will know that this blog doesn't focus on brain tumours as its main subject. If it seems to have done so recently, there's a celebratory aspect to it. One was my latest story, and the other is that today marks two years of my survival from the day the tumour was detected.

  I wasn't expected to survive this long, but through amazing medical intervention (and some wonderful people whose views I respect but don't wholly share would say through other interventions), here I am. In some ways I would say I am better off than at this time last year, though not in others. 

  The main thing is that, thanks to Tracey, my family and friends, I can still communicate pretty fully with everyone, in spite of memory lapses, and my quality of life is still acceptable. For this I am very grateful to who/whatever is responsible.

  I don't expect to write so much on this subject as the holiday season approaches, but this morning I did reformat the blog postings that told about how this all came to pass. They were some of the first I wrote, and the formatting was ... not good. Nothing of the substance of what I wrote there has been altered.

  If you haven't seen it, then here it is. If you have seen it, it now reads better!

  I'll write more on happier things for some time, unless there's a good reason not to. I've about twenty in mind!

Friday, December 2, 2011

A very special Christmas card: dear McGowrans

The world is badly in need of 'good news' stories. Sadly, they rarely make the headlines. Stories like this, though, sometimes do get their own moment in the sun.

Glenn McGowran
  Let me go back a little. It would have been right at the end of 2009, I think. It was one of those rare occasions that I was listening to a cricket test match being broadcast on ABC Radio. Rare, i.e., in the sense that I would usually be watching such a match on TV rather than have the radio on instead.

  This was only days after I'd been operated on for a highly malignant glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour. The ABC was running a competition about interesting local cricketing stories, when this one came up.

  You can (and should!) read it more fully and better described here, but the gist of it as I heard it on the radio was this. The brother of a young cricketer called Glenn McGowran had told the story of how Glenn, battling a malignant brain tumour of a different type to mine still played his cricket, even when he was having seizures.

  If he felt a seizure coming on while batting, the best sporting traditions of this game would cut in. The match would just stop for a few minutes, and then he'd come back out and resume his innings. Given the effects of a focal seizure, it takes guts, and sporting friend and foe alike respected that, as he expected no favours when the game resumed. When he was fielding, he just continued playing if a seizure was hanging around.

  In précis form like this, it doesn't seem as great as it is, but it was truly inspirational. Not surprisingly, it won the story competition. It wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't. The story was the thing that counted. It's told better than I can in other stories here and here.

  If anything happens by chance, then chance dictated that I would meet up with his brother Paul, the one who'd sent his story to the ABC. It wasn't a physical meeting, but a brief Twitter exchange only a few weeks ago. It established that instantaneous bond between people who share a life-and-death family experience.

  That's not quite the centrepiece of my story. Malignant brain tumours are relentless bastards - there are few other words for them, and they've been called worse. By me as well as other people. The problem rarely goes away altogether. Glenn's been battling this since 2006. There are periods of imminent danger and those of remission.

  The highest grades of tumours can't be eradicated entirely, as a rule. They are a Sword of Damocles that hangs over the lives of those who have them, and just as importantly, over their close families.

  Sometimes I think the pain of those close to a person with a very serious medical problem is placed on the periphery, but it's also at the centre of their lives as well. It's especially poignant when the person is young: a child or young mother or father, or one where their children really need them and where their greatest wish is to see their children safely into adulthood.

  Glenn's going to be a daddy in a few months. Imagine if you will the stress that he and his family felt when the next brain scan (MRI) was due a few weeks ago. Seeing what's below, it would be impossible not to appreciate and share the joy with them all of knowing that a good period of grace is ahead, and perhaps one allowing enough time to access the medication that will deal with the tumour once and for all.

  You need more words than that? I don't see why. That symbol at the end, if you don't know, stands for a wide smile. :D

  Who needs more? Merry Christmas, McGowran clan.

(NOTE: The photos have been shamelessly plundered from the newspaper articles I've referenced above. I thank them.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Coloured prose with flowers and birds

Many months ago I included some of the writings of the charming and waspish Sei Shōnagon (清少納言) in my writings, and promised more. I gave some, but nowhere near as many as I would have liked. For reasons I won't attempt to explain, I thought I'd write a Pillow Book style of posting, composed of flower photos from my sister's garden (Jan's), and a few new bird photos from Maureen Watson, which Bruce sent me recently. (Butcher bird, parrots of our region - crimson {in the japonica bushes} and eastern rosellas, and black cockatoo.)

Just browse the flowers and birds, read these few lines from Sei Shōnagon and, as K D Lang once said, "Be pleased!"

All excerpts from Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics. (C. 11th Century CE.)